Building the Muddie

While not exactly a travel story, this is the adventure of building our first home.

This coming decade, the 20’s, are going to see a lot of 50 year celebrations of events that took place in the 70’s, an era of some renown. The first of these for me is coming up soon with the Round the Bend Co-op celebrations planned for May 2021. Memories of that time have started bubbling back out at me, so I had better share them to get them out of my head.

My supervisor in Zoology, Tim Ealey, was a founding member of the Co-op, eventually a 320 acre block of bushland near Kangaroo Ground in Victoria. In 1971, I was a broke post grad student living for free but under sufferance as a Tutor in Mannix College, a Monash Uni residence run by the Catholic brotherhood.  There was no way I had the money to buy a share in the Co-op at that time, but the possibility stayed in my mind and I managed to infect Alison with the dream of living there over the next few years.

After we graduated, married, taught for a couple of years and did our first drive around Australia, we had the money to join, but still had to be accepted by the Co-op community as possible members. That meant attending meetings, working bees, and helping out on building sites, until all the members knew us well enough to agree that we be allowed to purchase one of the 32 shares and so be allowed to build a house on the site attached to that share.

All the house sites were distributed along the main access, Skyline road, and three rough tracks running along each of three ridges. Our site was the second in along C track, with a southern aspect. Several mudbrick homes had already been built by the time we were on the scene, so we had the benefit of many examples as to what was possible. As the land was only “ours” on a 199 year lease, with the freehold title held by the Co-op, there was no possibility of a loan to cover a professionally built home, so I think all members did their own construction work, and learnt from one another and by trial and error on the job. Tim had just moved into his house, so he gave us his old shack, so we had a place to stay when we came on site. This was once a box that Volkswagen cars were imported in before shipping containers took over.

Uncle Stan and Auntie Mollie with our shack.

We spent lots of evenings dreaming and drawing up plans, trying to put on paper exactly what we wanted, so a draughtsman could prepare proper plans for council. If we relied on the mudbricks to carry the load of the roof, then rooms had to be quite small compared to our ideas.  Large open space was our main need, so the bedroom and study each became about 5m square at one end of a 10m x 10m lounge area with a 4.5m high point along a central ridge. An open 5m x 5m kitchen adjoined the lounge, with bathroom, laundry, darkroom and toilet filling in on the western end. A 2m wide verandah went around the entire building. These sizes meant that we would have to use a post and beam construction on a concrete slab with the bricks made and laid after the frame and roof were complete. The stages of construction then became quite clear, with the 30m x 10m concrete slab first, then all the timber framing with the corrugated iron roof giving us shade for making the 5000 mudbricks on the slab where they could cure for several weeks before being laid into a wall.

Digby with John Roberts discussing possibilities

Formal plans were drawn up and submitted to council and the Co-op for approval.  The Co-op management committee had to also approve the marked out site. As there were too many sizable trees along the ridge crest near C track, we had to move our building site down the slope onto steeper ground than we wished as it meant a much larger excavation. Eventually we reached an agreement with the Co-op and all the approvals were in place in early 1978. A bulldozer was booked to make a level site during the week while we were at work and we were off.

I remember arriving at the site that weekend, and having to sit down in shock. What have we done!  It seemed like the dozer had given us a yellow clay football field, with a deep cut into the hillside and some filled ground out into the gully. We ran around with a tape measure, but sure enough the level area was just enough to fit our house, so we marked out the trench plan ready for the backhoe. Then the rain started. The operator looked at our mud and said “No way.  If I go down there, I’m there for the season”. So shovels and mattocks in hand, we launched forth to dig. We tried bribing students for the College where I was teaching, but they were so soft, exhausted and blistered after an hour or so, we gave up on them helping and just ploughed on. We were amused by Alison digging more trench than a young and fit footballer.

Alison digging with Mt Gotts in the background

The lounge room was designed with a 3m x 3m conversation pit in front of an exposed stone fireplace, and this pit had to be dug about a metre down and lined with concrete mixed by hand before the main part of the slab could be poured. Quite naturally, this was where we hit rock that required a jackhammer to shift. Eventually the hole was dug out and the steps formed up for the concrete. As I had never mixed a load of concrete, the instructions printed onto every bag of cement were very useful.

Trenches dug with formwork in place, and conversation pit ready

Once the pit was finished and we had set up form work for the entire slab, we were able to arrange for the concrete trucks and pumper to come for the main event. Several Monash friends came out for the big day, and the pump truck arrived early. Fortunately for us, as he took one look at the site and said “that won’t work mate, the screed is too big”.  He reorganised the method and took over as on-site manager while his crew managed the pump. I seem to remember 50 cubic metres of concrete went down that day, we were all utterly shagged out, and I tipped him enough for several slabs of beer for his help.

From the plans, I made a complete list of all the timber that would be needed for the frame and posts and gave it to my Dad to order through his network in the furniture trade. All the rafters and beams were cut from Oregon, while the posts were treated pine. This was promised to be delivered before Christmas and the truck actually arrived at midday on the last working day before. The driver swung to back down our track from C track and got stuck as the huge load slipped sideways. All the timber had to be unloaded by hand and stacked along our drive 50 metres or so from our slab, before the driver could extricate himself and get away.

At that time, there were no utilities available on the Co-op land. High voltage electricity ran along our 3 km frontage to supply power to the pumps taking water from the Yarra to the Sugarloaf dam, so electrical supply seemed a possibility. After many hours of argument, a consensus was finally reached where the group decided that yes, power and phone were valid needs.  Then the most environmentally friendly and fire resistant means of supply had to be identified.  One of our members was an electrical engineer and he designed a system that we could partly install ourselves over several work parties.   Several kilometres of trench were dug down the centre of each track, and as a group we threaded cable into conduit to bring underground power and phone to every house site.

Neil Harvey, Hilary Jackman and Ray Howell threading cable

 I think the power was switched on to our builder’s box while the frame construction was underway. Up until then, I had been using a borrowed generator, my chainsaw or simply a handsaw as the Oregon was quite soft and easily cut. Alison was able to lift the main ridge beams into place using our hand winch from the Landover, while the wall posts and beams were small enough to lift by hand. The 40cm square main post for the centre of the lounge was the main support for the roof, but I couldn’t figure out how to attach it to the steel leg set already in the slab. It still remains unfixed, held down by its own weight. Much of my woodworking for the frame was quite rough, as many of the joins would be hidden later by mud bricks, or corner trim. Once it was all in place, the council inspector arrived to approve the construction and he remarked that the long hip rafters forming the diagonal ends didn’t seem large enough and would probably need wire bracing. 40 years on and they still seem ok.

Roof framing nearly complete

With the slab and frame approved and legal, the steel roof was the next project. We were able to cope with the overwhelming idea of building an entire house only by breaking it down into these bite sized chunks. Each chunk could be further disassembled to discover that each step was quite doable.  The roof was to be a multi layered sandwich laid on top of the rafters, the layers being the Oregon ceiling and battens, then reflective foil, fibreglass insulation blanket and finally the steel on top. An electrician was needed once the ceiling boards were nailed down, so wiring ran in all directions under the insulation. The steel sheets were all about 7m long, and ran with a gentle curve from the main ridge beam all the way to the outside of the verandah. I carried each one balanced on my head to walk from the landy up a wooden ramp onto the roof and unload it into place. This was before tek screws were invented, but the screws that were supplied could not easily be screwed into place. Each hole had to be drilled and the screw hammered down. Surprisingly quickly we had a huge flat smooth slab to work on under a shady roof.  Finishing details like guttering, fascia board and the stone chimney probably took more time than the main part of the roof.

Lew and Eilish helping with Ali’s mum in the background. Yes, that is Alison standing with a flash hairstyle.
Steel going on, each piece carried up from the Landrover roof-rack.

When the bulldozer operator had finished preparing the site, he left a 3m high pile of clay on one corner. We had added to this with the soil from the trenching and christened the mound Mt Gotts. This was to be the source material for all 5000 of our mudbricks. I had two steel moulds made up, each about 350mm x 200mm x 125mm with a slight taper so they would lift up easily from the firm mud. There was a lot of discussion going on about the best way to make mud bricks, some people insisted on adding cement, some went for straw, some wanted compressed blocks. We ran a few tests on our soil, yellow clay with a high kaolin content, and decided that nothing more was needed and that the bricks would harden well without cracking as they dried. Our method for brick making evolved over a few weekends, after our first efforts produced a mere 50 bricks for the entire two days of hard labour. We would mattock out 12 barrow loads of clay and arrange the piles in an oval volcano shape on the slab and fill it with water. This was left overnight so that by morning the water had all been absorbed. We walked around on the muddy pile wearing gumboots, making a smooth and even mix until it was ‘just right’, firm but not sloppy. We then shovelled the mud into a wet clean mould, packed it down, smoothed it off and jerked off the mould to wash and do another one. After a few false starts, we could easily do 250 bricks in a weekend, turn the previous weeks bricks onto a side and stand the bricks from the week before that on end. After a month of turning and airing all sides, the bricks could be stacked ready to be laid into a wall. Some bricks became decorative as wombats or kangaroos would amble through our house during the week, leaving their tracks embedded in the soft bricks.

Mud being slopped into a mould, newly made bricks alongside and stacked ones drying in the background

Mud bricks don’t respond well to sitting in water, or even in simply damp places, so walls have to be built with a single course of fired bricks at the bottom. Two courses of mud bricks were laid on top of them, then the copper pipes for the water supply where it was needed around the bathroom, laundry, kitchen and toilet. The mortar used to fix the bricks was simply loam soil from a garden supply mixed with water to a good sticky consistency and slapped on with a trowel. Two lines of barbed wire were run along in the mortar in every third course. Electrical wiring was also laid in the mortar joints wherever it was needed, but not with the barbed wire, for power points and light switches, but if we forgot to lay cables where directed, it didn’t matter all that much as we could dig out the mortar easily later on and jam the wires in before burying them in more mortar.

We were using a string line to keep the bricks in line, but no-one had told us that the bricks are not meant to actually touch the string. After we had laid about 6 courses of bricks into the laundry wall, the bow in the wall was really noticeable from the string line being pushed out of line. Rather than take out the offending bricks we simply brought the curve gently back into line. The bulge in the wall is still there but now mostly hidden by a washing machine.

We had decided on floor to ceiling windows for the bedroom and south facing wall of the lounge, and actually found a carpenter to come and make the boxes to fit them into the walls. The windows themselves then fitted comfortably into his frames much more readily than they would have done had I done it. The opening windows were quite special, as there were two panes of glass sliding up and down, counterbalanced on one another with no crosspieces in the frame to break up the view, although we were required to put a visible rail across the midpoint.  The top and bottom edge of each pane was polished smooth.

The floor was next and we found a source of old roofing slates, enough to do our 300 sq metres comfortably. Alison took this task on, mixing cement mortar and screeding out a 20mm thick layer on the clean concrete. She painted the bottom of a slate with pva glue and pressed it down onto the mortar, using a level and rubber mallet to set it in position flat and true to the surrounding slates.

Meanwhile, I was building another fireplace and chimney for a slow combustion stove in the kitchen. This would heat our water as well as cook meals. The chimney was simply a brick cover for the steel flue from the stove, but had a 2m wide decorative archway facing the kitchen. I made a ply form and laid the bricks with cement mortar up and around the formwork which I removed once the mortar had set.

We wanted the bathroom to be a bit special as well and decided that we would have a timber bath and shower. I made a wooden box from pine flooring with a flat surrounding platform, then covered the whole thing with three layers of chopped strand mat soaked in fibre glass resin. We were able to convince the plumbing inspector that while it looked like a timber bath, it was really a fibre glass one and he went along with it. That one didn’t survive the test of time, and the people who bought the house had to replace the bath with a more conventional one not long after they moved in.

The house plan had several idiosyncrasies, a major one of which was the darkroom. As you may be aware, dust and photography do not go well together, while mudbricks and dust do.  We solved this problem by simply painting the inside walls of the darkroom with white acrylic paint, creating a much better seal on the surface than the normal coating of dilute wallpaper paste. A pure white darkroom!

Another oddity which didn’t seem a problem at the time, was that the master bedroom and the toilet were at opposite corners of the house, meaning a 35m walk for the midnight pee!

One of the fundamental principles of living in the Co-op was that no waste from our house or garden could be allowed to enter the surrounding bushland. So while all houses had a septic tank, these all drained into a transpiration bed, effectively a plastic sealed dam full of drainage pipes and rock under a soil layer with plants taking the moisture and transpiring it into the air.  These were regularly inspected by the Co-op committee to ensure no leakage was taking place, made obvious by a green line of growth down the hill through the grey Co-op bushland. Cats and dogs as pets were banned, although I believe a few indoor cats appeared from time to time. I remember the endless arguments when Tim announced that he wanted to keep chickens.  Eventually a consensus was reached where he could keep 4 chickens on his transpiration bed, fenced and roofed by wire mesh. However various local wildlife did wander through our house from time to time. Sugar gliders roosted on the verandah beams, tuans hunted through the kitchen, antechinus hid under the kitchen cabinets while wombats and echidna wandered at will. Our favourite, and still today, were the families of squabbling choughs lining up along the decking as if to come to the movies.  The previous years young assist in raising the new chicks, so flocks of 10 or more were quite common, roaming on the ground hunting insects while maintaining contact with chatter all the time.

We moved into an almost finished house, (who needs windows) by 1981, in time for me to start teaching at Eltham College while Alison commuted to St Catherines Girls School in Toorak. She picked up a few new habits from there, including a life-long love of champagne served to staff every Friday afternoon. As finishing touches, like windows and landscaping, went in on the weekends, we both completed our Masters in Education degrees and started looking for more challenges. Alison had specialized in curriculum development and wanted to pursue this as a career, while I had focused on science education and needed to stay in secondary teaching. A job came up as if written for Ali, working to develop learning materials for teachers in the TAFE system, where trainers usually had the knowledge and skills of their trade, but rarely any teacher training.  The job was based in Geelong and that meant moving off the Co-op to live where we could both easily commute to work. We found and bought a cute but tiny cottage in Port Melbourne, rented the muddie to Janet, and moved into town in about 1984.

Two years later, we had had enough of city life and decided to try teaching overseas. Interviews followed for the New Guinea Teaching Service, with possible posting to lecturing positions at Lae. The interviewers were so careless, that we both felt unable to work for a system that would send such people to Melb to conduct the interviews. Then we realised that Australia had its own third world in the NT, and we applied to join the teaching service there. And that’s another story.


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