Building the shed house – shouse.
This is the story of how we built our shed house at Mt Perry, what we learned along the way and some tips for those considering something similar.
(This first section was previously published in our travel blog – but is included her to give an overview of what and why)
Firstly – what and why?
We purchased the block of land at Mt Perry about three years ago. We liked it because it was quiet, had lots of bird life and it had water (the price was also a major factor – it was a large block that was (just) within our budget).
The availability of water from a well meant that we could camp on the land almost indefinitely. Well that is what we thought … after camping for a few weeks we received a visit from the local council health inspector. He told us quite clearly that unless we had a “class 1 dwelling” on the property we could not stay. A class 1 dwelling is one that has been approved for living and has had an occupancy certificate issued for it (ie – NOT a shed). At this point we became a bit disheartened with Mt Perry and left. It was however a very important thing to know – while there are (at least) 10 people that we know living in sheds, caravans or motorhomes nearby, there is always the possibility that you could be required to vacate. The only real solution is to build something that is approved.
One other important thing to keep in mind is that it is difficult if not impossible to gain approval to convert an existing shed into a dwelling (due to the inability to inspect the foundations after the concrete is poured and the walls after the lining is on). Clearly if ever we were to build on the property it would have to be by the book.
In 2011 we decided to explore the options for erecting an approved, liveable building on the property. We looked at a number of options including a transportable, relocated houses and kitset houses. Because we really have no desire to move out of the bus and stop travelling, the actual dwelling aspect was secondary. What we really wanted was a big shed that we could take the bus into to undertake maintenance – but we also needed an approvable dwelling section . The shouse idea was born.
The concept was to purchase a large steel kitset steel shed – then convert one third of that into the “approved dwelling”.
We would become Owner Builders and undertake the vast majority of the work ourselves. We decided on an American barn style with a tall centre section (to allow the bus entry) and set about talking with the various governing bodies. The most helpful of all was the local building inspector who had no issues with what we were proposing and was very happy to answer our never ending list of questions about rules, regulations and requirements.
Perhaps the most important thing we got right in the entire project was selecting the right certifier (in our case the local building inspector). We have heard a huge number of stories about building inspectors who are so tied up in their own little power trip and intent on making owner-builders lives hell, it becomes an almost impossible task to create something that they will approve. I am not sure about other states, but in Queensland you have the option to employ an independent certifier (to fill the role of the local council building inspector). I strongly recommend that you meet with every single option you have in this area. Show them the plans and gauge their attitude. Selecting the wrong certifier will make your task many many times more difficult and potentially much more expensive.
Buy a current copy of the BCA (building code of Australia). Be very sure it is the most recent copy as standards and requirements change often. Read it cover to cover and highlight anything that you feel will be important. If you plan to be an owner builder, it is very important that you understand the standards that the building will have to meet to be certified. It also puts you in a good position when talking with the building certifier if you understand what is actually required. This is a fairly expensive book that is also available electronically (as a PDF). If you have an ebook reader, I recommend the PDF version as it is very easy to search. (make sure your ebook reader is compatible with the format) .
Other documents that are very useful are the local shire planning scheme. This is a document that details any additional local requirements and variations from the BCA. In our case the local council had extra rules about the extent of slopes close to the building and the minimum height above ground for the slab. Talk with all potential certifiers about any local variations.
I used the free Google program “sketchup “ to design a few concepts and try things out. We then decided on the basic shed type and the required size. We then had to select a location for the building. Despite being on nearly 80 acres of land, we decided that the best place was quite close to the neighbouring boundary. Our building inspector came out to look at the location and to discuss “wind class” for the building. He also confirmed that we would need to apply for a relaxation to the boundary rules to be able to build the shouse where we planned. This turned out to be a very simple process and basically just required us to provide detailed drawings and pay a chunk of money (about $500).
The wind rating thing was much much more of a drama. This was our major issue in talking to the 6 shed kit manufactures that we had selected. The biggest problem is that most of the companies we spoke to are using out dated ratings and inconsistent methods for assessing the wind ratings of their buildings. Also be aware that the wind rating on a shed is different from the wind rating on a house (due to a factor called the “importance rating” of the building). Once again our building inspector was very helpful. He explained what the wind rating on our site would be (and why) and put this into plain English that we could understand AND talk to shed suppliers about.
The shed manufacturer that we chose was Widespan – much of this decision was based on their ability to meet the wind rating requirements of our site. (the site is at the top of a hill in a non-cyclonic area – but because of the location and lack of shelter from other structures etc, we needed a structure that has a very high wind rating).
While I am talking about Widespan – let me list the good and bad points that we experienced in dealing with this company…
The good –
- The sales team is very knowledgeable and extremely responsive. Nothing is too much trouble and questions are answered almost instantly.
- The quality of the design and engineering is great (be aware that I have nothing to compare this with – but we had no issues).
- The materials supplied were fine – again no issues.
- Any missing or incorrect material issues were resolved quickly and efficiently.
The Bad –
- The after sales support was poor and the staff far less than helpful. This left us with the feeling of “we now have ya money – too bad”. Once the deposit is paid you stop dealing with the helpful pre-sales staff and get to deal with the real people.
- The quality of the construction plans and instructions was poor. For a first time builder it was very difficult to understand many parts of the process and some parts of the process were completely undocumented. I have seen the documentation and instructions from other shed suppliers and these seemed to be far more comprehensive.
- There is no ability to phone a help line and talk to someone about an issue.
With the shed now ordered we had two months to get the pad built (with a bulldozer) and get the concrete foundations and slab laid. Once the deposit on the shed is paid, Widespan supply all of the drawings and the slab design. Of course the slab and foundation design is for a shed and NOT a dwelling. We needed to take the existing drawings to an engineer and have him draw slab and foundations designs suitable for a house. The same engineer had a drafts person on staff who took my drawings of the internals of the dwelling section and turned these into plans that could be submitted to council. This all cost around the $1200 mark.
We spoke to a number of local builders who all advised us to get a professional concreter to lay the slab. While we sat and drank coke and watched these professionals at work, we both commented on how wise this advice was.
Unless you have a lot of experience with laying concrete, do not even think about doing this part yourself. I am sure if we had attempted to lay our own concrete we would have ended up with a big pile of expensive concrete sitting on expensive reinforcing waiting for an expensive machine to come and take it all away. We dug all of the foundations (by hand), compacted and laid the sand. We purchased, bent fitted and wired the reinforcing and we prepared the area for the concreter to fit the boxing. We then watched as the three guys poured litres of sweat into the rapidly hardening concrete and battled to get it right before it was too late. This was perhaps the best $1500 we spent in the whole project.
I had read a lot about looking after new concrete and spent the next few days watering it and trying to stop it from drying out too fast and cracking – it worked (mostly) and we are very pleased with the resulting concrete slab.
We had some friends come and help us with the construction and erection of the shed and the actual shell was really fairly straight forward. It took us about 3 weeks (4 people, 6 hrs per day, 6 days per week) to get the shed ready to clad. The instructions called for a crane to lift the large portal section into place – we used the car and a hand winch. We did look at getting a cherry picker or scissor lift, but settled on simple trestles and planks – these worked just fine.
Buy all the good tools and equipment early in the project. We purchased new batteries for our dewalt drill, a steels cutoff saw, extra angel grinders, an electric rattle gun, another battery drill and a set of electric sheers. A laser level is essential (rent one or buy on eBay)and you will need a load of good quality hand tools. Tool belts and lots of rope are also important.
Our friends had to go back to NZ just as we were ready to start the cladding so both the roof and cladding were carried out by just the two of us. Once we figured out how to do this and how best to cut the cladding, it went fairly quickly and took us about 8 days to enclose the entire building. Fitting the windows and doors was the biggest challenge.
We had decided to go way beyond what had been required in the thermal insulation department. We actually ended up insulating the dwelling section to more than three times the required R rating. We figured that this is one area that is very difficult to retro fix. We were also lucky to come across some very cheap fibreglass insulation (left over from some failed government scheme??). The other advantage of putting all this into the wall cavities is that it almost completely eliminates any sounds from outside and the normal drum effect of the shed is gone.
Once the shed was closed in the rest of the construction was fairly straight forward. We had chosen to use steel frames (and I am glad we did) – these are light and easy to work with. I was fortunate to find a plumber who allowed me to do all of the plumbing work and even lent me the crimping tools to do it. He then checked all of the work before the plumbing inspector arrived.
I decided to wire the shouse for both 240v and low voltage (24v). This gives us the option of using low voltage solar lighting and also normal 240v appliances. The wiring is not complex and took us only a day to complete. Like many other items, the electrical fittings were purchased on eBay at a fraction of the cost of buying them elsewhere. For now the solar setup is tiny, designed only to support the security and surveillance system when we are not there. The bus has over a kilowatt of solar on the roof and this can be plugged into the shed when we are there. The design does allow us to add additional solar to the roof of the shouse as and when required.
Interestingly, because there is no connection to the grid, there is no requirement for electrical inspection or certification. I confess that I do not quite understand this, but elected not to ask.
One aspect that we underestimated the work in was the stopping, this is a really big job. We were very lucky to have some friend drop in to help – it turns out that he has lots of experience with plastering and stopping and was and absolute godsend
TIP #5 – make useful friends J
The final inspection was a breeze and the certificate of occupancy arrived in the mail just two days later. It was a huge relief and we shouted ourselves out for a meal to celebrate.
So what did we learn along the way?
- Do the research. Understand the requirements and the rules BEFORE you design or build.
- If the goal is to get a certified dwelling up as cheaply as possible, look at what you DON’T need. For example a dwelling with one (very large) bedroom is cheaper and requires less infrastructure (eg septic) than a two bedroom dwelling – and you can erect an internal partition at any time.
- Drawing the entire building in Sketchup was a massive help – it was like building it before we built it. It helped us avoid costly mistakes and made it easy to estimate quantities for things like insulation and wall sheeting etc.
- As soon as the shed is delivered go through the bill of materials and count every single sheet, nut bolt and screw. Widespan give you just three days to report any missing or damaged components (we had a few including the roller door tracks).
- You can actually do about 95% of the work yourself. Even things like wet area waterproofing can be undertaken if you have prior approval from the certifier (this alone saved us over $3000).
- Select a certifier that is happy to answer questions and emails. It is much easier to ask if this is ok than to have to change it later.
- Do not underestimate the cost of transport. We are some distance from the nearest large centre and our transport and delivery costs were significant.
So, what did it cost?
This is actually difficult to say in real terms. We know exactly what the project costs us – but we did a lot of bartering to get it to this cost. We built websites for some of the designers and suppliers. We did some electrical designs for others, some of the components were purchased second hand and we managed to get some of the materials well below normal retail.
The steel shed kitset cost $25,000 delivered (with no windows or glass doors). The entire project including all of the earthworks, tools, materials and additional labour cost us just under $70,000. In reflection I don’t really feel that it could be done much cheaper than this. This was about $5000 less than we budgeted and has left us with a basic but fairly comfortable two bedroom dwelling and a large and very useful shed on a very nice 80 acre property. Right now we have no desire to live there (we are still enjoying travelling), but when the time comes for us to spend less time on the road, it will be a very useful place to have and be able to relax on.
Are you considering building a shouse? Have you built one? We would love to hear from you. Please feel free to add your comments and ask questions in the box below.
Update 1/10/2015 – We have finished the inside of the Shouse and built a large deck area. Photos and info can be viewed at http://hobohome.com/motorhome_travels/120-Oct-15/120Oct2015.php
I plan to write a further article on the technical aspects of the Shouse including the automation and remote management systems as well as the security and surveillance systems. Links will be placed here when that article has been published.
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