A building site from Blogistan

22:39, Feb 17 2013

It's been too long since last I blog-posted, and a lot has happened in that time here in Blogistan. Below you will see day by day the amazing changes that have taken place on our tiny section in Three Kings, Auckland. Here's how we left the build when I last posted:

Before we start, I will provide a prize to the person who can best explain what this is and why we found it under bushes and rubbish on the section.

How "best explanation" is defined and what the prize is are only up to me and no correspondence will be entered into. (I've always wanted to say that.)



I visit the site. There are five men there, and me. Every time we visit the site we meet new people and I am acutely aware that Gemma and I are paying them all for their time. For a moment I feel the responsibility is too much. But there is simply no going back. There is a massive hole in the ground and it now has its own momentum. Like a black hole it's attracting people, equipment and money and we don't have to do anything to keep it going. Here is our cast of characters:

Bill the Geotech: A tall, well-dressed man in his 70s. If I was pressed to say which muppet he is it would be Jim the Eagle, but I should make it clear he is not a muppet. He parks his Peugeot and strides on to the site eyeing the cut with a sceptical eyebrow.

James the Project Manager: James used to be a detective (this is actually true) so I know that he will leave no stone unturned. Probably explains why he is constantly turning all our stones.

Tony observes as Bill shows James how to really turn some stones.

Glen: He owns his own excavation firm and as such comes to site with a raft of skills I know nothing about. At one stage he casually hauls a surveyor's theodolite and stick thing out of the cab of one of his trucks and starts surveying. As long as he steers clear of surveying quantities, I am happy. We've had more than enough of that carry-on, thank you.

Bill talks about the slope of the cut with Glen while James wears some alarming shorts.

Tony: Tony is the joystick maestro. Glen claims to have taught Tony everything he knows, and while I suspect that would take longer than is actually practical, whoever did teach Tony how to drive that thing - congrats, well done. It's amazing how something as massive and powerful as that digger arm can be so dexterous. Watching that digger is like watching Kim Dotcom, but Kim Dotcom making doll's house furniture out of toothpicks.

Guy in the Truck: I'm not on site for that long today and I can't meet everyone. He is very good at backing and that's all I can say for him.

I speak to Bill about the dig. There are basically two issues we are dealing with. I say "we" but I have about as much to do with it as a father at the birth of his child. If I don't get in the way, cause delays or burst out crying I'm exceeding expectations. As I said, there are two issues:

1. The cost of dumping the materials. I was living in a dream world of raspberry-flavoured luxury, chocolate hopes, and roses in the sky when I said Winstones would let us dump for free if our fill was clean. Not only is it not free, they are trying to sting us for a higher tipping cost because they say there is dirt as well as scoria in our fill. "Mixed fill" is $13.50 a tonne instead of $9. See the red stuff in the photos? That's scoria. Some of it is extremely fine though, like dirt but gritty and not organic. It isn't dirt so James and Glen are both arguing the case and Bill the geotech was on site today putting scoria in a bag so he can write a letter supporting our case that there is no dirt.

2. The second issue is the nature of the ground we are digging into. If it is too hard, it will be expensive and time consuming to dig out. Too soft and the banks we dig will be unstable and dangerous. It hasn't been too hard so far. Bill today leaves the site to prepare a report about whether the site is too loose to leave the banks of the hole bare without danger of them subsiding, collapsing which could mean men catching rocks on their heads or the house above falling into our hole. Even though we are trying to put a house in our hole, not like that.

If you are interested in the geology of a volcano, you are now in the right place. From the surface down there are many different kinds of tephra. Tephra are just fragmented deposits of all different sorts and sizes from a volcano - as opposed to solid lava flows or fused-together solid layers of ash which is called tuff. I have read this word and thought it was pronounced to rhyme with "gruff" and "tough" but Bill pronounces it to rhyme with "woof". I do what Bill does.

At the top, under the soil, this fine stuff.

Going deeper we find larger rocks mixed in. But it depends where you dig. The consistency varies all over the place.

And at the bottom there are some layers of welded tuff - which is where the volcanic ash which fell through the air 28,500 years ago was hot enough when it landed to weld together into layers of more solid rock. This was the hardest part for the digger to remove.

My favourite part of the hole is what I have decided is a lava flow halfway up our slope. There are two narrow tubes of solid lava which run out of the hillside and have been cut off by the digger - showing as two circular hard-bits in our cut face. The bigger one has a tiny lava cave formed when the outside of the lava flow cooled and solidified in the air, while the inside kept flowing.

When the inside finally cooled and shrank a gap formed between the skin of the flow and the inside. For almost 300 centuries it has been dark inside that cave. Until last Friday.

Unfortunately this lava cave is too small to house any troglodytes. It's only about 10 centimetres across at the widest part. So really it's more of a crack. You can see how the lava formed little stalactites as it cooled.  Here's a wide shot to show where the lava flow appears in the hillside.

The semicircular-ish thing under word "Cat" on the digger arm is what I have classified as a lava flow.

And check out the variation of colours of the volcanic material here.

Not quite as cool as those little jars of coloured sand from Rotorua, but I don't have to put up with a stench to see this. The 'lava flow' is the dark part in the centre of the picture.

As far as scientific observations go, that's about my limit I'm afraid: "Look how the rocks are different sizes! Look, a hole! Look at the colours! Mummy I'm hungry!"

If life wasn't so busy I could spend hours and hours in this hole looking at the secrets of this mountain called Big King. It's crazy to think that these volcanic rocks fell here from the sky while hunter-gatherer Cro-Magnon man was only just moving into Europe, doing crude paintings in caves and sending articles in to Investigate magazine.


Is our day of choosing tiles. With limited time and a lot of tile shops to go to, we decide to go to the site for a "quick visit" in the morning. To our surprise there are people there working on the weekend. Tony and Glen have almost finished digging the hole. They are right down to basement level and finalising the shape of the hole and the levels they dig to.

Despite wanting to stay there all day talking to Glen, we decide not to completely prevent progress on the build and Gemma and I drive away very happy. I remind myself that if it was anyone else's hole we'd be very jealous. We need to feel our luckiness as intensely as we can imagine that jealousy.

I will discuss our tile choosing expedition (our "day on the tiles") in a later post. For now I'll just note that we visit Jacobsens, Designa Tiles, Tile Warehouse, Tile Depot, Heritage Tiles, and Spazio Casa, then Tile Whorehouse, Shitbox Tiles, Miles of Tiles, Tile in Style, Piles of Tiles, The Tile File, Dial a Tile, and Spazzy Castle.


We go gumboot shopping. The Warehouse proves to have better gumboots and cheaper than No 1 Shoe Warehouse (which should be at best the No 2 Shoe Warehouse). We buy a plastic box for $7 to keep our gummies in and we will hide this on the site. Please don't come and steal them.


Architect and Father-in-law Roy is in Auckland and meets us at the site first thing in the morning. Nobody is there yet, but the hole is finished. There are no machines, just a big flat, garage-shaped floor. We walk around on it in amazement.

The architect gets friendly with his client.

Later that afternoon we return to site and meet two more characters who will come to play major roles in the build (because they are the builders).

Sam and Deek are two young guys wearing tans and toolbelts. I'll introduce them properly in later blogging posts. I wanted to get a photo of each of them, but it didn't seem right to ask them straight up "I'm Jon, can I take your photo?" While James will manage the build and the subcontractors will all play their parts, it is Sam and Deek who will actually build our house with rulers and pencils, hammers and saws, muscle and brains every day between now and... when we finally put the linen on the bed.

We spend almost an hour at the site. What Gemma and I mostly accomplish in that hour is to obstruct the build with a barrage of questions. There is an upside and a downside to asking your builder questions while he's working. The downside is that you are paying him to teach you about the build (but you aren't paying him through Novopay, so you know he's definitely getting the money). The upside is you learn. But you only learn enough to ask the next pertinent question - which leads back to the downside. I think after about nine months I could learn enough to build the house myself, but then I'd need to because the builders would have achieved nothing.

The footings of the house go around the edge of the basement and they hold up the concrete walls that form the basement level. The footings will be made of concrete poured into a trench to varying depths depending on how much that bit of the floor is holding up. Sometimes as deep as 400mm.

To determine where the footings go, a surveyor came out to the site and nailed in some reference pegs which were positioned to within a couple of millimetres by GPS. I'm assuming this is some sort of uber-GPS because the GPS I know is commonly out by a suburb or two. If I come back and find they've built the house so that the kitchen is in Sandringham, I won't be surprised. And if we end up with a robotic woman's voice giving us directions around the house, well that's just silly.

The surveyor's DayGlo pegs, while very 1980s and strictly out of fashion, are the bible in terms of positioning the house. The builders use them to lay everything else out. It took Sam and Deek just a couple of days with pegs, nails, string and this instrument to outline the basement and its footings in string.

I sneak a picture of Sam and Deek while they don't know I'm up here. Guess which car does NOT belong to a builder.

This is the laser level, which allows the builders to hold up a ruler-looking thing anywhere on site and receive a pleasing beep when the ruler is at exactly the right elevation.

I'm really glad they didn't get the laser level from the competitors, "Inaccurate Instruments". To go with this hi-technology, Sam and Deek are also using stuff called "string", "wood" and "nails" to lay out the shape of the basement to within a millimetre or so. Then they pull out spray paint and make lines on the ground where they will dig trenches for the footings.

Today Bill's geotechnical report comes back. Bill is concerned that the top part of our hole is made of looser material that could come down, or be washed down when it rains. As the consulting geotechnical expert he has to recommend that we play things safe and as the builder and client we have to follow his recommendations. So James, Sam and Deek will spend a good part of tomorrow wrapping the hill in polythene, staked in firmly with steel rods. This way any rain will not bring down the hole and any pieces that do come loose won't bounce down the slope and hit anyone in the forehead Bap, Bap!

We leave, and Sam and Deek continue making a string outline on the ground.


We pop by for a quick look at the site after work - for no reason other than we can't seem to keep away. Our site has become a work of art.

James, Sam and Deek have performed a wicked "collab" on the site which I think owes a lot to the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Bravo gentlemen! And as well as being an existential statement about the relationship between man and his hole, it will keep the rain off the dirt.


This morning I meet Richard from the Auckland Council (by your holy grace bless us today and forever) on the site. It's his job to ensure our actual house lives up to the promises we made in our application for Resource Consent. He's got a couple of concerns about the slope of our driveway which he's talking to draughtsman Karl about. I'm not sure whether it's looking like being too steep or too flat. I'll keep right out of it.  

Richard is very happy with how James and his hired buildsmen have fenced the property above and below and the only other concern he has is that silt might escape on to the footpath and road. I don't explain that it isn't silt, but fine scoria sand and dust.

Furthermore the steel reinforcing has arrived.

Sam and Deek will spend the next couple of days carefully laying the steel into the trenches they cut and boxed out for the concrete. They've done a lot of boxing - certainly a lot more than Sonny Bill, who would have boxed 10 of the trenches but not all 12.

It's a very exciting time. We've seen more change on site in the last week than ever before and with another weekend now past there will be more to see when I next postulate a blog.

I doubt we'll see faster changes from here on in. If luck is with us concrete trucks will arrive this weekend and pour concrete into the footings. We should also hear from Grant and James about the schedule of the build, with that tiny but crucial detail of when it will be finished.

I hope this blog isn't accidentally full of ignorant rednecked racism, I only skim-read it before I published it.


The Bloglodyte from Blogistan,

Purchase Man.

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