The Can of Worms, Part III

I left you after the last post about to rip the carpets out of the bedrooms. We’d tried to peek at the state of the floor around the heating/AC vents earlier, but given the presence of mould on the east wall, I wasn’t too optimistic.

The good news was that the floorboards did not appear to be rotten. The bad news was that the floor had been butchered in order to install the AC duct. The odd thing was that even with the cut to the floorboards, the ducting was still kind of squashed.

More investigation revealed that the floor had been laid directly on the ground, and the space between the joists filled in by what appeared to be a layer of pumice.

Stuart said he’d never seen anything like it. The same thing was true in the west bedroom, except there wasn’t any pumice, just dirt, and the joists were rotting. The study was farther down the natural slope of the site, so it had a normal floor.

Meanwhile, I had been racking up the hours reading up on the Griffins, and I found this, in Grand Obsessions by Alasdair MacDowell:

As a cheap and thermally efficient alternative to traditionally framed floors, Walter devised a method of laying timber directly on the ground, providing termite – and damp-proofing with thick layers of bitumen under and between the joists. As a detail that defied convention, this prompted a predictably obstructive reaction from building inspectors.

I can only guess that somehow Walter sneaked this by the Toorak inspectors during construction. He’d had to do battle to get the knitlock approved; maybe he just did this without mentioning it.

In terms of damp-proofing, we weren’t convinced. (Remember the mould?) Since the floors were going to have to be replaced anyway, (ka-ching!) Stuart advised that we excavate them and add subfloor ventilation. That would also make it possible to put the AC duct in without squashing it. So Andrew and his crew got their shovels out, removed the bitumen, and tackled the rock-hard clay beneath it.

We left the floors of the hall closets resting on the ground the way Griffin had wanted, and I have to admit that in the heat of summer, they stay cooler than anywhere else in the house. Wine closet!! Maybe he was on to something, after all.

Meanwhile, Stuart had been doing some digging of a more informational kind, and discovered that the water that was constantly oozing out from beneath the garden wall on the southeast corner of the lot (near the MBR) wasn’t coming from water-wasting neighbours, but from a natural underground source. Our mould combat efforts would have to take this into account.

This, along with the subfloor ventilation, gave me hope that we could eventually win the mould war and get that worm back in the can. Never fear, there were plenty more.

Part of the renovation was to replace the ducted heating with a hydronic panel system, which is a much more efficient, never mind more pleasant way of keeping warm in the winter. To do this we needed to get rid of the huge hot water tank outside the master bedroom and replace it with a smaller, more efficient on-demand, wall-mounted unit.

In the process of doing this, a test of the gas system was conducted, and lo and behold — something was not adding up. Worm Number … ? Where are we? I’ve lost track.

The diameter of the gas line at the street was 35mm. At the house, it was 50mm. Somewhere between the street and the hot water heater, gas was going AWOL. The whole line would need to be replaced.

On the bright side, at least we’ll be living in a house with updated gas and electric. The insurer will be happy.

I’m sure you’ve been thinking all along about how much fun the architects and Stuart were having breaking all this news to us. Not again!

Our budget, once so reasonable, was now becoming a distant memory. Especially since we decided the time had come to address the elephant in the front room — a huge vertical crack which had been conveniently hidden by a bookcase. When you stood in the room for a little bit, looking out the windows, you gradually started to realize that the whole wall was gently bulging outwards. You can see the crack in this photo of the front room, sans bookcase.

When I’d gone through the garden with the previous owner, he’d waxed poetic about how the house looked like a ship plowing through the waves of box shrubbery beneath.

Stuart, in the meantime, had discovered that some of the stumps (that’s a technical term for things that hold up the floor) were being inappropriately supported by remnants of the knitlock blocks. He was in the process of correcting this. Our confidence in the state of things was not high.

We had been hemming and hawing over it for a month or so, but Marc finally insisted that we get a structural engineer in to make an assessment. We needed to know what was going on, and whether or not to worry about the wall collapsing around us as we were watching Aussie Rules Football.

The report came back:

I consider the wall to be structurally unsound, and would recommend it to be demolished, and rebuilt incorporating a steel framework, or similar.

Come again?

It was at this point that I found myself, now thankfully out of the minuscule and noisy Air BnB by the station and into a two-bedroom Air BnB near the Botanic Gardens, lying awake at night and berating myself for having had the idiotic idea that buying this house would be a fun adventure.

We could be comfortably moved in to some nice boring contemporary box by now! I could be sleeping through the night blissfully unbothered by collapsing walls, rats, possums, electrocution or gas leaks!

Jane and Christopher, realizing their mistake in hiring an engineer who knew nothing about heritage architecture, were quick to reassure us that no one was going to knock down the irreplaceable knitlock wall. They secured the services of a different, better qualified engineer, and this one arrived carrying a book about Walter Burley Griffin. That’s more like it!

He reiterated that no one was going to demolish anything. He’d come up with a plan for stabilizing and reinforcing the wall. Andrew who, like the rest of us, had become something of a Griffin fanatic by this point in the project, suggested the idea of putting steel rods followed by epoxy down the hollow knitlock blocks. In the end (much later) the solution indeed involved the rods and epoxy, along with massive steel posts sunk into concrete beneath the floor. These were used to brace the wall so there was no way it would move even another millimeter. Two hardy Ukranians spent one very hot day underneath the house digging pits in the the rock-hard clay.

Meanwhile, back in the house, where Stuart was removing a wall so we could put in a proper laundry room, he saw something no one ever wants to see when looking at a piece of wood …

But that’s enough worms for one day.

Stay tuned.

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