Step by step to a stunning staircase

This blog has turned 60, and like all things that turn 60, it's about to come to an end - because the house that we've been building is almost finished. I'll tell you honestly that I'm starting to crack slightly. I say that not for sympathy (which I certainly don't deserve) but just to report the effects on the client at this end of a long build with a busy job, a wonderful wife and a perfect new baby. 

I'm someone who really enjoys the anticipation of knowing I've got a good thing coming, so the delays haven't been that hard on me. One day I'm all whining that we aren't moving in yet, but two days later I'm high on expectation again. Part of me is worried that once we're in, the actual experience of being there won't live up to the years of tense expectation and continual fantasising. It's like winning the rugby world cup: we wanted it so much but are we really enjoying it now that we've got it?

The final month of our build has turned into six weeks. And yesterday we found out that, though we have to move in this weekend due to having nowhere else to live, there will be significant stuff still unfinished.

Every time we visit it gets harder to leave, and we're dying to just unpack all the boxes we've moved into Three Kings and move out of our temporary house. We've been living in Ponsonby now for five months and we've almost completely lost touch of reality. To us now a 'dog' is something that goes in your handbag, 'breakfast' is something you eat at a table on the footpath so that everyone can see you, and a 'dog's breakfast' is everything south of Grey Lynn. 

Let's get onto the week's big news.


Anatomy of a Folly

The major remaining piece in the puzzle that is our house is the feature staircase. If you've read the blog before you'll know they've been a tricky part for James the project manager and us. As I write they are being installed, which is extremely exciting. Soon we will be able to "take the energysmart stickers off the appliances" and move in.

Very rich people used to build mock-gothic castles or mini windmills in the gardens of their estates. These purposeless buildings were called follies, and at times I worry that our stairway is our version of this, without the 'very rich' bit. Clearly not purposeless, they nevertheless are undeniably more difficult and fancy than they needed to be. It has proven very complicated and costly to make them look simple and elegant. But for all these caveats in the end I think through some wonderful design by Gemma, great drawings from Karl, perseverance by James, and by the clever engineering and craftsmanship by the champions at Continental Stairs they are going to end up.... beautiful.

Let's have a look at the process so far.

At the stair factory they have been taking large pieces of American oak - the same material our floors upstairs are made from, and pressing them together to form the stair treads.

At the bottom of the stairs is a giant landing, also made from oak. Here it is being pressed together.

And then being brought to the house and convinced to enter the front door.

On site, rods have been hung to form a lattice, and opposite them steel tabs protrude from a hidden steel plate that runs diagonally up the wall.

One end of each tread attaches to the steel tab protruding from the wall, the other end has three of our black steel rods pass through it. You can see the complex way the ends of these treads have been made to accommodate the rods seamlessly.

Each tread is fitted onto the tab at one end, then the rods are screwed to other end.

The level is carefully checked. The height of the rod end of each tread can be adjusted infinitesimally by raising or lowering the three rods the tread is attached to. Each rod is attached with a nut to the floor above.

Turning the nuts on the threaded rods raises or lowers them. Later the rods will be tensioned top and bottom, using the nuts, to give rigidity to the whole structure (hopefully without putting too much downward pressure on the floor above which is cantilevered out).

The end of each tread has a cap that comes off, with beautifully mitred edges. The cap conceals the way the rods are fixed to the tread. When the cap is replaced, the rods just seem to glide through the tread with no apparent fixings.

And after a couple of days work assembling them precisely on site, this is how they look.

And that is as far as the stairs got before it was time to post this post.  Continental stairs are rightly proud of how they came up with the solution for how to construct these stairs so that the rods support the treads without any visible fixings, so I have to mention that the whole system is under copyright and patent and trademark, so if you want stairs like it you have to go to them.

Once all the treads are in and adjusted, and the rods tensioned, a long cap piece will put placed over the nuts top and bottom, then the treads will be sanded and polyurethaned by Jeff who did the same to the floors above. Final stairs photos in next week's post.


Of course if the stairs are unique, our whole house has been a one-off. James counts it as probably the trickiest house they've ever built. There isn't a lot we could have done about this - the steep, small site demanded a unique solution. In hindsight the contractor who, in trying to win the job to build the house, advised us to sell the section and start again somewhere easier was probably giving good advice. We are SO glad we didn't take it.


Finished Business

Apart from the stairs, the other major excitement of the week has been the garage door. I'm amped about it because I've never had a garage before, let alone a mechanical garage door. I'll try not to get too nerdy and excited about it, but it really is a great piece of engineering. It is made of five panels, each almost 6 metres wide.

Each panel is clad in the same cedar as we've used for parts of the exterior of the house. The panels have wheels at the edge that slot into tracks up the wall on each side of the door opening and the panels are hinged together with 40 of these hinges.

A bar across the top of everything spins to raise the door. Each end of the bar has a steel cable connected to the bottom of the door which reels the door in.

But you can imagine the weight of that whole thing.

So the bar also has massive springs wrapped around it which load up when the bar spins as the door closes, and spring back as the door opens, assisting with the lift.

And you end up with this.

Notice how the door is higher on one end than the other so the bottom panel had to be made wedge-shaped. Also notice how Gemma is going to have a fit when she sees how ugly the remote controls for the door are.

Each time you push one of these buttons, not only does the garage door open, but somewhere in Hamilton a party starts in 1988.


Unfinished Business

Even the simpler parts of the build are tricky at this time of year. Every building project in New Zealand right now is demanding of every trade to be 'done by Christmas' and subbies are hard pressed to cope. Lukebo our intrepid sparky from Craig Walker Electrical, was at the house until 10pm on Monday evening and sent us this photo which blew our minds.

"It's Alive!" was Luke's caption.

But the subbie who has most overextended himself is our joiner. His team is doing a beautiful job of our kitchen, and all their work is exquisite. On the weekend the joiners were in full force. They were finishing off the kitchen.

Meanwhile Gemma was in seventh heaven, unloading about 15 boxes marked "kitchen" and putting everything in its place.

In the step-through wardrobe and ensuite another of the joiner's henchmen worked his magic.

But there was little sign of them Monday or Tuesday and we had an email on Wednesday saying they wouldn't be back this week to finish off the other wardrobes and shelving units. So it looks like we'll move in and have nowhere to put our books or clothes. Frustrating for us especially considering they've had months with our plans, and a two-week extension already from our original move-in date, and the only thing stopping them finishing is that they have prioritised other jobs.

The person I suspect this is actually hardest on (apart from Gemma who'll have to take care of Zeno all day surrounded by boxes) is our project manager James of our contractor DCH who is stuck between a demanding client with a Ponsonby attitude and Palmerston North money, and an overextended bunch of subcontractors. We know he's tearing his hair out to try to make it happen for us, but we can't help but continue to ask him for more help.

To take a lesson from all this: If you can avoid it, don't plan your build to finish anywhere near Christmas. It's a bad time. As a chippie, Jesus would have been working flat out right up to his birthday - and had no-one to blame but himself. Our build started on January 24th, so has taken nearly of 11 months - most builds don't take that long, so starting in January SHOULD see you right.

Having said that, another massive lesson we've learned is what I call the Grand Designs rule. Your build will ALWAYS go over time. Optimism is essential as long as you realise it is completely misplaced.

Here is our house just two days before we move in.

Over the next couple of weeks as I wrap up this blog I'll try to summarise the whole experience. If you have any questions, please biff them into the comments below.

I have been making videos along the way. If you haven't seen all 13 of them, you can find them on my youtube channel. The best one by far tells the story of the day the huge steel beams were craned into place on the top floor.

Do you miss Sam and Deek? So do we. We really miss them. It seems like most of their work on our place is done and this past few weeks they've gone off to work on another house. We didn't even know they were seeing other clients. I mean we never actually said it was exclusive, I guess we just assumed. I suppose now we're free to meet other builders but to be honest we don't really feel like it.

We move in this weekend, then on Monday I leave to go on tour around Te Ika a Maui with the 7 Days team, but I will post an album of photos showing the completed stairs and how we moved in.  

Please come to see 7 Days Live in Napier, Tauranga, Hamilton, Wellington, Palmy, New Plymouth or Auckland. (unfortunately Tauranga, Wellington and Hamilton are sold out as of today, but the others have some tickets left:  If you do come along please say hi.


Please join me again next week when we go from "We're Building a House" to "Were Building a House". (that awesome wordplay courtesy of readster Hudsie). 


In anticipation, I remain your humble,

Purchase Man


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