Looking for a forest

We’d been scouring the internet for forests for sale, applying our standard criteria for new purchases:

  1. Priced under $100,000
  2. Situated 1 hour from an international airport
  3. Situated 1 hour from an international port
  4. Depressed economy with a likelihood of recovery within a decade

We had found two areas of the world that seemed to comply, eastern Canada and southern Tasmania. There were some nice sea- and lake-front properties up near Halifax, where we reasoned that the economy, which has been in a bad way since the crash in fish stocks some decades ago, might recover if global warming caused the North West Passage to open up and container ships started coming ‘over the top’.

On the other hand, we don’t like Canada’s tax laws, but are already subject to Australia’s, so we had a closer look at Tasmania.

Down in the far south of the island state, much of the land facing the d’Entrecasteaux Channel has been (at least theoretically) subdivided into rural plots. Over the last hundred years there have been several attempts to build new bush towns down there, and the councils hold maps with named roads and numbered plots, but development never kicked off and there is no sign of this on the ground. Mainly it’s all unmarked post-logging new-growth forest. However, the plots exist as legal entities and are all owned by somebody, typically by a local resident who bought them up as an investment. Now those residents (or their descendants) are passing away and willing their land to their children. However, Tasmania has moved on and those children don’t want to live on the land, they want to make their fortunes in the big cities on the mainland. Many of these plots are now up for sale, as those children try to cash up and move on.

The d'Entrecasteaux Channel near Hastings
The d’Entrecasteaux Channel near Hastings

Having drawn up a short-list of some half-dozen candidates, we flew to Hobart, hired a car, and spent an enjoyable rainy weekend stomping around in the bush with an obliging agent from Tasmanian Private Realty.

This forest in Cradoc also had pastureland, but needed an access road over swamp land
This forest in Cradoc also had pasture land, but we’d need to build a long access road over swamp land
Nice view from a forest above Franklin, but a little too close to our neighbours, and the trees were a bit scrubby
Nice view from a forest above Franklin, but a little too close to our neighbours, and the trees were a bit scrubby
This property near Hastings was mainly cleared with a half-finished building in it
This property near Hastings was mainly cleared with a half-finished building in it
This property in Surges Bay had been logged too recently and hadn't recovered yet
This property in Surges Bay had been logged too recently and hadn’t recovered yet

At the end of a long but very interesting day, we arrived in Lymington where there were three connected plots for sale. It was almost dark as we clambered around in the damp undergrowth, but we liked what we saw and decided to return again next morning.

We were up bright and early and, after breakfast in the pleasant local town of Cygnet, drove out to Lymington. There was an old logging track that led past Lots 1 and 2, which then petered out before reaching Lot 3. All were for sale. Lot 1 was on the flat with some pasture, Lot 2 sat at the bottom of the hill, and Lot 3 ran up the hill to the top. As was usual with these kinds of plot, there were no fences or border markings of any kind.

From the logging road, Lot 2 is on the left and Lot 3 can be seen in the distance ahead
From the logging road, Lot 2 is on the left and Lot 3 can be seen in the distance ahead

We were drawn to Lot 3. It has the advantage of sitting at the top of the hill at the end of a blind road, so it would be very private. The border with Lot 2 is marked by a winter creek. The other three sides of the square border forestry land, and when I rang the council to see if they had any plans for it, they told me that there it was such a thin inaccessible band that it would never be worth anybody’s while to log there again.

Looks like it was logged about 30 years ago
It looks like this property was logged about 30 years ago
Having a good look around in the undergrowth
Bronwyn has a good look around in the undergrowth

There is a good covering of different trees of different sizes, and the undergrowth is thin enough to allow access to the whole property. The rural zoning means that we can build a house or not, as we feel fit. As a bonus, Copper Alley Bay at the bottom of the hill has moorings for deep-keel yachts, and – as residents – we would be able to put in our own mooring for a minimal fee. The nearest town, Cygnet, has shops and pubs and a hardware store, as well as some nice little restaurants.

We think we’ve found our new home.

Moorings in Copper Alley Bay
Moorings in Copper Alley Bay

We bought a forest

Relaxing here in a clearing, sipping world-class local wine as the sun sets over the blue sea below, I find it hard to believe our luck. We have just bought the forest that stretches for acres all around, but if we need some milk in the morning, we can drive down to the local town in fifteen minutes or, if the mood takes us, we can be at the international airport within the hour.

Indulging in a little light gardening
Indulging in a little light gardening

Our little piece of paradise is in Tasmania, a state that remains largely neglected by tourists and by mainland Australians alike, and yet the lush 68,000 square kilometre island contains some of the most productive land in the southern hemisphere. While the rest of Australia suffers under fifty years of drought, Tasmania not only supplies much of the country’s soft fruit, but also supports a burgeoning and very successful boutique wine industry.

The state largely escaped the Australian property boom and subsequent crash of 2002, and, compared to the rest of the country, land in Tasmania remains cheap and undeveloped. It is true that in recent years, the part of the island closest to the cosmopolitan buzz of mainland Melbourne has undergone something of a metamorphosis, with affluent mainlanders buying up waterside frontage, or giving up their office jobs to start boutique vineyard farm-stays. Later entrepreneurs have since spread out along the coast, with locals scrambling to subdivide and to sell them their previously worthless land.

It is away from these northern areas that today’s bargains are to be found. A year ago, there was still land available on the hills above the capital city of Hobart. Today you should point your car southward, and in only half an hour you will find yourself in the Huon Valley wine region, currently densely thicketed with ‘For Sale’ signs. The larger tracts have been given over to viticulture, but what remains are little pockets of bush, perhaps hard-won fifty years ago, but now often willed to disinterested children who really just want to sell up, split the money, and get back to the city.

Logging is a part of life here, and apart from some rather spectacular National Reserves, there is little standing timber over fifty years old. A typical ‘bush lot’ comprises up to twenty acres of  young gum trees for up to $100,000, a price that could also get you a mere handful of acres of cleared building land with water views. Having done most of our research on Tasmanian Private Realty‘s excellent website, we only needed a single weekend to view our shortlist before settling on fourteen acres sloping gently down towards the sea.

Cygnet is the closest town. It is typical of the area in that it comprises a simple line of a few homes, some local businesses, and three pubs. When we spoke to the new owners of the Top Pub where we were staying, we found that they were renovating the upstairs into a boutique hotel. The nearby Red Velvet Lounge restaurant offered a gourmet menu featuring locally farmed salmon and organic produce, and there was talk of a new deep-water marina close by. These are not the hallmarks of your average bush town, and so it seemed to us that now was the time to buy.

We intend to build a small home in a clearing, but could equally well put up a series of guest lodges. That’s all in the future, though. For the moment, we are content to sit and sip our wine and enjoy the views.

The jetty to our mooring
The jetty to our mooring

Beating the boundaries

We’re about to head off on a sailing adventure, so we popped down to our Tasmanian property to ensure that we’d still be able to locate the boundaries on our return. We’ve replaced our original surveyor’s marks with fresh tape and put in some boundary stakes.

We also decided on the location of our house, which we intend to be built on a high deck to provide views out over the tree tops. We’re currently considering a round yurt design, so we’ve staked out a ring.

Staking out the foundations.
Staking out the foundations.

While buying stakes and marking tape at the local garden centre, we decided that we might as well do some gardening as well, so we planted some soft fruit.

Really, though, the whole idea is to camp out here in complete seclusion, and enjoy the forest.

Breakfast time
Breakfast time

Where should we build our house?

Now that we had purchased our forest in Tasmania, we had a great camping destination (albeit one where all our gear needed to be packed in over the creek on foot), but where should we build our house?

Our first camp site
Our steeply sloping 2008 camp site. Note the staked retaining wall/ foot rest to stop us from rolling down the hill.

With 14 acres of dry sclerophyll forest to choose from, we spent several visits stomping about, clambering over fallen trees and poking at the ground, we slowly formed a more detailed mental picture of the terrain. The high Southern slopes are steep and rocky, and the low Northern slopes are steep and boggy. To the East, the land falls away steeply to one side. To the West lies the official route of Klynes Road, although in reality there is little more than a rough logging track which terminates at the creek crossing on our border. Still, it is the closest thing that we have to a demarcated border with the farm on that side, so we didn’t want to build in sight of it in case something changes there in the future.

In the end, we decided to put the house on a shelf of less steeply sloping land, more or less in the middle of the forest. After a lot of scrambling around and climbing trees, we ascertained that a raised deck would give us fine views across the d’Entrecasteaux estuary, over the tops of our lower forest. The higher wooded slopes to the South would protect us from storms rolling in from the Southern Ocean. Bravely, we hammered some stakes into the ground.

Where shall we put our house? How about right here? Staking it out in 2008.
How about right here? The site in 2008.

It was still only coloured sticks in a forest, with no access except on foot by crossing the creek at the bottom of the property. However, a neighbour who had built a house further down Klynes Road had access to a bulldozer, so we commissioned him to run a causeway over the creek, push through an access track, and clear the brush from the building site.

Where should we build our house? RIght here! The brush cleared in 2012.
The house is gonna be here! The brush cleared in 2012.

We’d asked him to leave the larger trees for the moment, but to clear anything that had fallen down. This had the unexpected benefit of providing us with chest-high stacks of drying fire wood which will probably last us for years.

Perched atop just one of our little piles of firewood
Perched atop just one of our little piles of firewood.

We have no immediate plans to start the house build; all that is far in the future. But now that we can get a four-wheel drive in to our cleared building site, we have a perfect camp retreat at the bottom of the world.

Where should we build our house? Our camp site in 2012.
Home away from home. Our considerably more comfortable camp site in 2012.
Making good use of the wood pile.
Making good use of the wood pile.

For several years, all of our camping gear had been stored under a bush, wrapped in a tarpaulin. On every visit, we found more holes in our tarp, and sometimes nibble-marks on the tools themselves. We decided to construct a more permanent shelter for our gear, and to this end bought a prefabricated garden shed and some railway sleepers.

Digging the foundations for the shed.
Digging the foundations for the shed. It’s nice firm clay down there.
A man and his shed
A man and his shed.

I am an Owner-Builder

We had chosen a build site in the middle of our forest, and had at least made a start on putting in an access road and clearing some space. But what next? What kind of house did we want to live in, and who could we get to build it? Would it make sense to do it myself as an Owner Builder?

We knew that whatever we built, it would be off the grid and self-sufficient. Even though such structures are increasingly common in Tasmania, it seemed to us that it would be sufficiently non-standard that we wouldn’t find something off the shelf, and perhaps we would be best off managing the project ourselves. To this end, I began investigating the requirements to attain my “Owner Builder” qualifications, which would give me the legal ability to build my own house in Tasmania.

It turned out that there were two components to this; the “White Card” which is an industry standard health-and-safety qualification that is essential for working on any building site in Australia, and the “Owner Builder Certificate”, which is a specific course to prepare you for the job in hand.

White Card

An Australian White Card is a pre-requisite for any construction activity, and the terms and conditions vary between Australian States. Whichever card you get, though, it is valid in all other Australian States… and some States don’t allow online training… and you don’t need to reside in a State to apply for their card… and the Western Australia card is available online and differs from some others in that it does not have an expiry date. I couldn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t get the open-ended WA card, so I registered with EOT online training and got one.

The course was inexpensive and interesting, with a face-to-face component which involved videoing yourself giving answers to some of the longer questions which are reviewed by the trainers. There was also a slightly bizarre requirement to film yourself correctly wearing your Personal Protection Equipment, so I took the opportunity to kit my daughter out as well.

owner builder PPE
Bunnings also sell PPE for small people.

Owner-Builder

The Owner-Builder qualification is a bit more involved, but is also available inexpensively online. I took my course with ABE, and began a fascinating journey into the intricacies of controlling a building project. One theme that continued throughout the various modules was to think carefully about whether you were up for it; are you capable of managing your time, managing people, managing a budget? Is your family prepared to support you throughout the inevitable stress? Are you really prepared to give up so much of your time?

It really is a very good course, and at the end I felt a little nervous but at least mentally prepared for the challenges to come.

Shall we build a round house?

We had long been interested in the idea of building a yurt or round house in the woods, even travelling to Mongolia to stay in an original felt-walled ger.

Our ger on the Mongolian steppe.

These gers are designed to be stripped down, packed up and moved at regular intervals, stemming from the traditional nomadic lifestyle on the Steppes. With the breakdown of the USSR and their enforced “westernisation” of Mongolians, there is a resurgence in their use, particularly noticeable today in construction sites as the workers move from site to site.

Gers in use by construction workers in Ulaanbaatar.

There is quite a movement around the world to take the same easy-to-erect construction concept but with the view to building a more permanent structure. Some companies used modern fabrics, others made the walls from wood. In all cases, the result is a polygonal structure with a large open space inside.

Australian Roundhouses

We looked at a few different companies, several in the US where this sort of thing has been going on for some years, but eventually settled on Australian Roundhouses (formerly Goulburn Yurtworks) just outside of Canberra.

A design from Australian Roundhouses.

The team were enthusiastic about prefabricating the structural elements in New South Wales and driving them to Tasmania on a low-loader to erect them for us. We had an entertaining time discussing various options and layouts; the polygonal plan provides a fantastic airy openness inside, but does present problems when most of our modern furniture is designed to fit inside a square box. Still, everything seemed to be going pretty well with an 8-metre central round house surrounded by a ring of “annexes” to give extra space. The central roof cupola would provide natural light, and the full-height windows and raised exterior deck would give us unrivalled views across the d’Entrecasteaux Channel.

round house plan from Australian Yurtworks

We edged ever closer to an agreement, and the builders got ever more excited about their upcoming Tasmanian “holiday”. Then we realised that we might have a problem with the 49 foundation posts on which the structure would stand. They would add appreciably to the weight of the trailer which needed to cross to Tasmania on the ferry, so I agreed to look into sourcing them locally. Since the site is sloping, with a drop of a few inches to the South and about 3 metres to the North, a half to a third of the posts would need to be longer than the standard length in which such poles usually come. The longer ones, up to perhaps 4 or 5 metres, would all be “special order” and priced accordingly…

And then we started factoring in all the extras that we would need once the main structure had been constructed. Dry-walling, plumbing, electrical, waste, all would have to be added after the builders had gone home. Even the rough estimates started to blow our budget. We needed to reconsider.

Neat House

Perhaps we could get away with a smaller round house for our living area, and combine it with a more traditional structure for the services? We looked into a company called Neat House who prefabricate buildings in Tasmania using local materials.

round house with neat house

This would use fewer long foundation posts underneath the yurt, but now we would be dealing with house components from two separate suppliers, plus additional labour to glass-in the connecting corridor between them. It was all starting to get a bit complicated, so we went back to the drawing board.

Shall we build a prefabricated house?

After considering some lovely (but ultimately impractical and over-expensive) round house options, we have realised that we need to pay less attention to the fluffy design tasks, and more attention to supply chain logistics and to the post-lock-up finishing and decorating. To this end, we decided to investigate a prefabricated house.

We started out looking at “tiny houses”, which are a bit of a fad at the moment. Technically a caravan in that they possess a wheeled chassis and are thus immune to building regulations, they are not meant to be towed around on a regular basis and are commonly installed as a granny flat in a suburban garden. A tiny house can be a marvel of interior design, and we found that we were familiar with many of the principles because it is similar to that found in yachts, where space is also at a premium.

A typical Tiny House, a prefabricated house.
A typical Tiny House, the Hauslein Sojourner

Although tiny houses are very interesting, and a good way to create some extra living space in a confined area, they are relatively expensive per square metre because of the necessity to cram everything into a small footprint, and anyway we have plenty of space to spread out and no need to unnecessarily limit ourselves.

There are other styles of prefabricated house, that can give you a larger footprint. Around Australia, there are a number of businesses which will build a house for you in their factory, all the way to completely decorated with all utilities and appliances installed. The house is then cut into pre-defined segments and delivered to the site on a low-loader for re-assembly. The advantage is that the builder has complete control over all aspects of the build using their own staff, and can thus deliver significant economies of scale as well as an agreed price and timeline.

We chose to move forward with TasBuilt Homes after visiting their rather amazing factory in Launceston.

TasBuiltHomes factory with a prefabricated house inside
Tasbuilt Homes factory, containing a house in progress.

The way it works is that you take one of their standard designs, and then move around the internal walls and fittings until you have the result that you want. The guys at TasBuilt were very friendly and obliging, and we had an excellent set of discussions with them, specifying all the finishes and adding a North-facing deck. Since the price was all-in, there were going to be no surprises, and we were pretty happy with the plan.

All was going swimmingly well, until TasBuilt sent their surveyor down to look at our access road, which was then under construction. They approved of the road that we were building across our property, but were less happy about access down Klynes Road itself. TasBuilt’s surveyor judged that it was too narrow and too steep to negotiate with a 6 metre wide trailer.

Although this is officially a council road, we are not averse to running a bulldozer down it or cutting back some trees if we need to, because we are the last property on the road and it doesn’t go anywhere else. However, there were places where we would have had to double the width, which would entail substantial earthworks and the loss of some beautiful well-established trees, so we regretfully decided to return once again to the drawing board.

Bulldozing a Road

Back in 2012, we asked Matthew, a friend and neighbour who had access to useful machinery, if he would help us with bulldozing a road into our property. We asked him to make it as subtle as possible, just a winding bush-track through the forest to give us initial access, without materially changing the look and feel of the site. Matthew made us just what we wanted, a dirt track just perfect for humping camping gear in and out of the forest.

Bulldozing a road - The first track
The entrance to the track from Klynes Road into the property, freshly built in 2012.

I had an idea in the back of my mind that some day we’d need to widen it to give access to construction machinery and to serve as our official Rural Fire Service access road, but for now this would do us just fine.

Since the “official” council road, Klynes Road, was merely a dotted line on a map rather than an actual graded thoroughfare, we also got Matthew to clear a line along its path up as far as our track entrance, adding a turning circle for delivery trucks, for when the time finally came to build something. Nobody else uses that end of Klynes Road, as it doesn’t go anywhere, so we felt that nobody would mind.

Then we went travelling abroad for a number of years, and returned with a small child. This re-focussed our minds on the building project, which had heretofore been a nebulous plan that we would think about somewhere in the future.

The first step was to evaluate what had happened to our property in the intervening six years. Was the access track still open? Was the cleared building site still accessible? We hopped on a flight to Hobart and rented a small car with a child seat.

We had no idea what we might find, or even if we’d be able to find the track. Nature can reclaim a lot of land in six years! This video records our arrival.

The track was still there, overgrown with ferns in places, and obstructed by fallen branches and the occasional tree. We cleared it all away, but found that the compacted mud of the track bed had eroded in places to reveal a lumpy surface of loose sand, projecting tree roots and slippery stumps, and there was no chance of getting our two-wheel-drive rental vehicle up there. We did come across a flat hard-standing that had been built by a gate to our nearest neighbours’ property (the farm on the other side of Klynes Road), a gate which hadn’t even been there six years ago. Now that we’d extended Klynes Road as far as our boundary, there was no reason why our neighbours shouldn’t make use of it, and they clearly had. It made a useful place to park the car, while we unloaded.

Bulldozing a road - the track a few years later
This is as far as we can get in this vehicle! Looking down Klynes Road from the track entrance.

Our storage shed, now six years old, was still standing on firm foundations, with all of our camping gear refreshingly un-nibbled by the local wildlife. After moving out the bulkiest items, we used the shed as a rain shelter for cooking and eating. Berrima, age 3, instantly fell in love with the forest, and with the whole idea of bush camping.

I had been worried that we would need to have the building site itself cleared again, but in fact it looked much the same as we’d left it six years earlier. I had deliberately left the tall trees standing while clearing away the scrub and litter, and I guess that’s the advantage of dry sclerophyll forest; all of nature’s action is far up in the tree canopy, and nothing much happens on the ground. There was just some Common Heath, a pretty but slightly prickly flowering native, and some bracken under the sheltering native cherry trees.

House site, looking North, in 2018
The house site, looking North, 2018.

Having established that everything was fine with our forest, we went back to work. A year went by, while we worked on contracts far away in Queensland and in the Australian Capital Territory. In the evenings, though, we planned and plotted ways to fund and build our final home.

Doing our research and due diligence, I became aware that the Rural Fire Service regulations had changed. When we’d put in our original access track, the requirement had been a maximum slope of 1 in 4; now the legislation had been upgraded to no steeper than 1 in 5.5 and at least 4 metres wide. Before we would be permitted to live in any planned house, we needed to build a new road.

I commissioned a surveyor to provide us with a contour survey of the site and track. This confirmed that not only the track but also the final rise of Klynes Road was too steep, and the surveyor went back to research the slopes further downhill. Once this was done, I plugged his figures into a GIS program, and then spent several months trying to combine the often contradictory information from this and our previous surveys, mud-map sketches, and paper documentation, to form a coherent picture of our site.

Poring over the numbers, I mapped out a potential contour route for an access road that would meet fire regulations, would be strong and wide enough to take heavy construction vehicles, and yet wouldn’t spoil the feeling of arriving at a remote bush block. In the 2019 site plan to the right above, you can see the wide green road skirting the Easterly limit of the contour lines.

The map is, of course, not the territory. For all I knew, there might be stands of important trees that I would not want to see felled, or other surprises that could only be determined on the ground. Since I was still working far away in Canberra, I also needed to find somebody with the necessary equipment and experience to get the job done in my absence. I boarded a flight to Hobart.

As luck would have it, it was pouring with rain that weekend, although this had brought the Common Heath into bloom across the entire 14 acres, which was quite beautiful.

Flowers of the Common Heath
Flowers of the Common Heath, pretty much the only plant that has reclaimed the cleared land.

I had intended to camp on the land, but instead elected to stay in a local B&B that had the advantage of heating and the internet. My rental car, a tiny hatchback, was obviously never going to make it up our track, but I figured that I would load it up with surveying equipment, stop short on the final drop of Klynes Road down to our creek, and hump in my gear on foot. I was quite surprised to discover that our neighbours had, in the act of putting in a boundary fence, extended Klynes Road right past our property and up over the next hill.

I had a rare old time stomping around in the mud, translating my mapped intentions onto the ground, and finding that yes indeed there was a slightly better route through the timber, one which avoided felling some of the older trees. I spray-painted and marked the route, while wondering who I was going to find to do the actual work.

Bulldozing a road - planning the route
Let’s put a road through here…

Back-tracking to our border with Klynes Road to check my figures against my boundary markers, I came across a large yellow digger parked on the fence-line of the farm on the other side.

Bulldozing a road - the perfect toy

Aha! I thought, and rang the neighbour whose fence this was, and before very long was in contact with the Dan, the Cat’s owner, who agreed that it made perfect sense for him to work on my project once he’d finished the fence-line, since his machinery was already on site.

Soon enough, the road-building project was under way. Perhaps ironically, the very first thing that Dan did was to widen and re-open the old track, so that he could get his digger up to the site. Now we are the proud owners of not one, but two roads.

Things quietened down a bit until after Christmas, when Berrima and I arrived at the end of a road trip to escape the 2019 bush fires. We had a good laugh “going on an expedition” (looking for and re-marking our boundary markers), setting up a tyre swing, and doing some bush artwork.

The search for the South West Pole
An Expedition to the South West Pole.

I also took the opportunity to finally clear the trees from the building site.

The building site, looking North, after felling the trees
The building site, looking North, early 2020.

With actual physical labour and a changing skyline, it finally felt that I was achieving something. The site became brighter and sunnier, and the final shape of the view over the d’Entrecasteaux became more obvious. As well as Dan the digger, David the builder and Rodney the quarryman also visited, and we were able to point at things and make real decisions; it felt like we were making actual progress.

There is a bend at the bottom of the new road that is slightly too steep to drive up if the mud is wet. Even the Land Cruiser couldn’t get up in the rain.

Between Dan and Rodney and I, we formulated a plan. Dan would do some more levelling to straighten out the bend as much as possible, and then Rodney would drop a 1.5 tonnes of 60-100mm aggregate next to the creek. Dan would level it, and then Rodney would drop a second load. Once this had been bedded in up to the top of the bend, Rodney reckoned that the gravel trucks could negotiate the bend by themselves, and lay the rest of the load (150 tonnes!) themselves using the tipper and dragged chains.

Today, the first load went down, and the creek crossing looks marvellous.

Bulldozing a road - the first load of aggregate
The first load of aggregate at the creek crossing, looking North down Klynes Road.

Shall we build a bespoke house?

Having exhausted the possibilities of round houses and prefabricated houses, it was back to the drawing board once again. We had been trying to make the project easier for ourselves by getting major parts prefabricated and delivered, because we were working interstate and would not have daily oversight of the construction. One obvious solution was to move to Tasmania and personally supervise the build, but we had temporarily lucrative work in faraway Canberra which we still needed if we were to complete the project. Perhaps it was time to stop trying to make things easy, and get somebody to build a bespoke house for us on site?

We initially approached Davies Construction, who were happy to build something that resembled our previous designs, and provided some reasonable-looking cost estimates. We were feeling quietly confident when they backed out at the last minute, saying that they had just completed a build across the river in Franklin, and found that the travel distance of their sub-contractors was too onerous. I suspect that in reality our project was too small to be of interest to them.

Then we started discussions with the amazing David Kapel, a build manager in Launceston. David was excited by our project from the beginning, and took all of my carefully assembled quotes and estimates and agreed that he could meet almost all of them himself. He would handle our entire build, including all sub-contractors, from breaking the ground to the final finish, including electrical and plumbing work, for a reasonable price.

The way that he was able to achieve this was because the main structure of the house would be made from baulks of cedar, imported already cut and shaped to the owner’s specification by the Scandinavian company YZY Kit Homes. YZY had an agent close to our house in Canberra, who was happy to show us around some demonstration houses.

Bespoke house, the Madeira from YZY.
YZY Kit Home “Madeira”.

Being made of thick timber, these houses are sturdy with excellent thermal insulation, and the parts are easily transported. We were shown a house like the one above, broken down into components and ready to be packed into a standard shipping container which would easily fit down our road.

The bespoke house "Madeira" all packed up and ready for delivery.
YZY Kit Home structural members ready for transportation.

Nothing was too much trouble for David, and he even agreed to a fixed-price contract because he was interested in having a show home in the south of Tasmania. We met him on site and discussed access, and we discussed turning circles and trees that needed to be removed, and the levelling of a space on which a 40-foot shipping container could safely be offloaded using a side-crane.

Over the months, we worked out interior decoration, decking materials, and different methods of achieving (and in fact exceeding) our required Bush Fire Rating.

Bespoke House YZY Madeira, our finalised plan.
Based on the YZY Madeira, our final plan.

We moved forward with grading our access road, and I got busy with the chainsaw to clear the building site. We put our property in Montevideo up for sale to free up some cash, and got down to the final fiddling details of the placement of light switches and power sockets. We were onto a winner.

Then disaster struck. Due to a family emergency, David had to pull out of the project and shut down his construction company. We were devastated.

YZY were still happy to supply the kit, but did not have any other licensed builders in Tasmania. Still in shock, shattered and not a little depressed, we drew a line under the whole idea of house-building, and went to look at yachts instead.

It took a little while to work it out of our system, and we looked at a lot of yachts. In the end, though, we couldn’t really find what we wanted for the amount of spare cash in our pockets, so we returned home to sulk.

Then we heard once more from David; his son, whom we had already met, was interested in taking up the reins of the family business. We slowly restarted our negotiations, and were just in the process of pricing up a second design option, when COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic. Transport prices from Scandinavia went through the roof, as all the world’s empty shipping containers ended up rusting in China awaiting cargoes that never arrived. The Australian dollar went into free fall, and the supply chains of imported building materials broke down. Tasmania closed its borders to non-essential visitors.

We hope and trust that we will all get through this, but until the crisis is over, that’s the end of our story.

Plan B for Tasmania

Our off-grid house-build in Tasmania has come to a complete standstill, following the builder’s surprise cancellation of the project, and the closure of State borders during the covid-19 pandemic. Dan’s digger – which has been chugging away all this time, clearing and levelling the site – burnt out a track motor, and importing spare parts has become problematic. We can’t get to the site to complete the clearance ourselves or to oversee any decisions due to quarantine regulations, and anyway the importation of building materials for the house, not to mention electronics for the solar array, has become all but impossible.

Our daughter starts school in Tasmania in 2021, and the contract in our current AirBnB in Canberra expires before Christmas 2020. We really need to sort out a Plan B.

We did some Zoom tours of houses for sale down in Kingston, which is on the outskirts of Hobart and close to the school, but noticed when the property agent panned around the neighbourhood that there were still some empty plots available. That got us thinking.

We had already formed a good working relationship with TasBuilt Homes, who had designed us a nice house which they were going to build in their factory and then bring in pieces to assemble on the land. Unfortunately, their surveyor decided that the approach road was too steep for their low-loaders to negotiate, and we moved on to other plans.

What if we bought a simple urban plot with access to town electricity and gas, and got TasBuilt Homes to put their house there instead? That would tide us over for a few years and enable us to get settled in Tasmania before once more addressing the off-grid build.

And so it came to pass that, three days ago, we became the proud owners of Lot 319 on the Spring Farm Road project in Kingston, Tasmania.

Plan B - Lot 319
Can you see what it is, yet?

While the conveyancing was going through, we spent several weeks drafting the design of the house that we’ll put on it. This weekend, we’re signing a contract with TasBuilt Homes to start working on the full design.

Plan B floor plan
Plan B Artist's Impression
An artist’s impression. The colours are wrong, but the shape is right.

It probably won’t be finished in time for Christmas, but we do still own our wonderful forest, inside which is an area that has now been at least partially levelled. To that end, we have purchased a new tent in which we can live (and, if necessary, quarantine) until the Kingston build is complete.

Plan C Black Wolf
Plan C. Our new Black Wolf tent last weekend.

It looks like a plan is finally coming together!

Submitting the Plans

We’ve been forced by the pandemic to put our plans for the forest on the back-burner, and instead to build a completely different house on a completely different plot. We now find ourselves under pressure to get the house finished so that we have somewhere to quarantine when/if we are allowed to relocate to Tasmania at the end of the year. At the time of writing, it isn’t clear how we’ll transit intervening Victoria, which is in a declared State of Disaster…

Putting those worries aside, we do need to crack on with our design. There is a tight deadline if we are to get the planning signed off in time for the builders to start ordering windows and other materiel, in time to get the prefabricated sections delivered to the site by the end of September. To this end, we have been having daily discussions with the builder and with various suppliers (fireplace, flooring, decking, solar heating) to try to get everybody on the same page before we submit the plans to Council.

Since everything is connected to everything else, we also needed to decide on the flooring and the tiles and various finishes up front, so that we have a good understanding of how they all work together; it would be disappointing, for instance, to find on the day that the top of the floor tiles (7mm thick) don’t line up with the top of the wooden flooring (14mm + underlay) and indeed the hearth of the fireplace. This entailed numerous trips to the tile shop, bathroom shop, kitchen shop…

Site Surveys

We had engaged a geotechnical engineer (Ian Newell at EAW Geo Services) to perform a soil survey even before our plot purchase was confirmed. We didn’t want any surprises about our foundation requirements, and thankfully we were graded H1 with stiff clay, which won’t give us any problems with a pier foundation.

Even though this is an urban block and not a bush block, we were also required by Tasmanian regulations to determine our Bush Fire Attack Level. We engaged another surveyor (Rebecca Green and Associates) who determined that we were “low risk”, something that we already knew but which needed to be backed up by a certificate as part of our planning application.

Bear in mind that, because of the current ban on interstate travel, we have never actually seen the block that we bought on the internet. One good thing about the Bush Fire Rating is that the surveyor must provide photographs of the surrounding vegetation in their report. Now we have access to current photographs! This gave us our first good view of the neighbouring blocks. We are a little surprised to find that nobody else had started building yet. Are we going to be the first?

Submitting the plans - BAL rating vegetation
Submitting the plans - BAL rating vegetation
The view to the NW is our block, the other views are of our neighbours on either side.

Up on stilts

The plans were converging on a solution that fulfilled our requirements, but which didn’t blow our budget too badly. We were aware from Google Earth that there was a slight slope to the land, but since our house would be built on posts rather than on concrete foundations, we weren’t too bothered about it. Our previous plans for the property in Lymington had to deal with a much steeper slope, where we anticipated a deck standing over 3m above the terrain. For the Kingston house, we figured that there would be a drop of less than a metre from the lounge sliding doors to the garden, but we’d sort out some kind of step or low platform after the house was built. The engineers had made a similar assumption, roughing-in a few wooden steps on the design to make the doors accessible, but otherwise leaving them alone. When the rest of the design was largely complete, TasBuilt Homes sent a surveyor with a Dumpy to get accurate readings, and confirmed a fall of about a metre across the whole 30m length of the site.

At about the same time, we were having interesting discussions about the slope of the garage roof. There is a local ordinance that the house and garage have to be roofed with the same material, but the style of Colorbond that we preferred for the house roof requires at least a 5 degree slope for drainage. The garage had a 3 degree slope, and if we increased that to 5, and extended the roof over the front door as a porch as we intended, it would interfere with the opposite eave.

Our choices were either to cut the garage into the ground (which would result in a garage floor below ground level with all the associated drainage issues, and would necessitate a more in-depth geotechnical survey), or to lift the entire house by about 30cm. That was pretty much a no-brainer, but when the architect plugged the new figures into their drawings, they found that the rear of the building would be well over a metre off the ground, and – under current Tasmanian legislation – we would need some enormous balustraded stairways to conform to health and safety regulations. Our slim and minimalist design suddenly sprouted all kinds of ugly appurtenances which pretty much wiped out the entire garden.

Submitting the plans - too many stairs
Oh no! Where did all those stairs come from?

In order to get rid of the stairs on our planning application, we needed to bring in the deck design a bit earlier than we had anticipated. After all, it’s just a budget, hey?

Thankfully, Bronwyn had already been talking to a local deck builder, and he was able to quickly come through with some specifications for the planning application. Our main deck, which was originally going to be a low platform along the side of the house (so low that it didn’t need planning permission), was now up on significant stilts, which meant that we’d also need a privacy screen. We also created a small back deck for our bedroom, so that we’ll be able to drink tea as the sun comes up.

Submitting the plans - The final version
OK, this should work.

It was time to lay down our first serious payment, tens of thousands of dollars, to the builders. They are now submitting the plans to the Council.

Fingers crossed!