Cathy Duff's Knox muddie
By Jim Duff
Thank you Murray Johnson for
your byohouse.com.au web site. You have made me get off my backside
and convert those old slides, hidden away for years, into something
visible to everyone who is interested in the history of mud-brick
homes in the modern era.
This is a tribute to two great
architects who have had a positive influence on my life. I feel
privileged to have built a mud-brick house designed by Alistair
Knox, and to have shared in his devotion to his role model Frank
Lloyd Wright. I am not an architect by profession, but did harbour
such ambitions when I was young; as it turned out, I took to
another creative pursuit by designing computer systems in the
We spend most of our lives in
our homes, and both of these architects understood the need to
have more than just a roof over our heads. To them, living in
a home should be an enjoyable and uplifting experience, in harmony
with nature. The three years spent planning and building our
mud-brick home with the help of family and friends, and enjoying
the fruits of our labour, were some of the happiest of my life.
The Lead Up
We had recently sold up and moved
from Adelaide back to Melbourne to be near our families, and
bought an acre block of land in Donvale. We decided to build
our own mud-brick home after going on an organised tour of such
homes around Eltham. At first sight, the homes designed by Alistair
Knox stood far and above the rest in aesthetic appeal, so we
decided that was the only way to go.
We were both middle class professional
people when we met Alistair, and his first impressions were of
a pair of softies who may not have the necessary strength to
undertake such a labourious undertaking as building a mud-brick
house. He warned us that there were only three things required
for such an undertaking: lots of money, lots of hard work and
lots of time.
Alistair was not a very well
man when we met him in 1982, but he undertook our engagement
with enthusiasm. He felt he had a couple of converts under his
wing and continually regaled us with his philosophies on the
environmental aspects of home building, and the great influences
of his life, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffin and others.
He took us around to some of the homes he had designed, to gauge
our feelings for what we would like in our own.
He came up with a few sets of
plans for discussion and we soon had an agreed design - in short,
a wide U-shaped split-level, with the two sides being the parents'
quarters at one end, the boys' quarters on the other, and the
bottom part of the 'U' being the kitchen, dining and living area.
Alistair declared himself a pyromaniac, and had a fireplace at
each end of the living area. The U-shape would provide a natural
North-facing courtyard. After he had the plans approved, Alistair
introduced us to an experienced builder, Tim Malseed, who would
manage the main aspects of the building. As I was a project manager
myself, I was impressed with Tim's professional approach to the
project. He had everything itemised and costed, and even had
a Gantt Chart (time line). For our part, Cathy and I would make
and lay the mud bricks between the post and beam construction
erected by Tim and his two offsiders, a couple of gentle giants.
The split-level home on the sloping
block would be built in two stages: the first during 1983, after
which we would move in; and stage two the following year. Stage
one was the lower L-shaped section, comprising a large open-plan
living, dining and kitchen area; plus a separate area with a
family room, bathroom, laundry and two bedrooms. The first stage
was structured so that Tim and his giants would construct the
post and beams, window and door frames, roof and ceiling; they
would then leave us to it while we laid the mud bricks (we both
had nine-to-five jobs, and could only work at nights and on weekends);
afterwards, they would return to do the fitout ready for a certificate
Did we get there? Read on.
We had a rectangular block that
had one of its thin sides to the street, and sloped away downhill
to the West. All the nearby homes were built so that their fronts
faced the street, ie towards the East. When Alistair first came
to view the site, and later to set it out, he placed our home
to face North, ie towards one of our neighbours. A courtyard
and ceiling height windows along the North side of the home would
capture the sun during its low trajectory in Winter. The interior
would then be protected from the sun's heat as it passed over
our roof during summer. A bit of landscaping would later provide
privacy from our neighbours who, like us, did not desire a fence
between our properties, but preferred a free-flowing area of
lawns and trees.
After I had meticulously pegged
out the site, exactly as laid out on the plan, Alistair came
along and asked what time it was. Looking up to the sun, he said
"OK, lets turn it around this way a little bit." The
block wasn't set exactly according to the compass, and Alistair
wanted the front of the house to face true north.
So, a mud-brick house is made
of recycled bricks, timber and other required materials, as well
as the mud bricks themselves. In our case, the posts were mainly
recycled beams and flitches gained from demolished warehouses.
The main oregon ceiling beams had to be a certain F-grade and
subject to engineering computations due to the 20 foot expanse.
Alistair and I visited a brick
factory in Brunswick to get some beautiful hand made bricks for
We obtained a two-level jarrah
staircase from a warehouse being demolished in Brunswick Street,
just across the road from the restaurant run by Mietta O'Donnell
and his son Tony. The staircase had to be dismantled into three
parts, and trucked back to the block - the cartage actually cost
more than the staircase! The Olderfleet Buildings in Collins
Street were being gutted prior to being refurbished throughout,
and I bought two trailer loads of one inch thick kauri pine floorboards,
full of nails. The kauri was later used for our kitchen and bedroom
cupboards and wardrobes.
We bought two beautiful church
pews, 12 feet long, made from kauri pine (discovered after we
cleaned away several coatings of paint) from a church in Box
Hill. The backs of these were taken off and made into a refectory
table that was to be a feature of our open living/dining room.
They were the good old days of
being able to scavenge recycled materials for a not unreasonable
Making Mud Bricks and Leadlight
During the planning stages, I
had taken a course in mud brick making at the Agricultural College
run by John Archer, so I was ready to go after the excavators
had provided a huge pile of clay on the levelled area. We needed
about 2,000 bricks for stage one and were lucky to have help
from a few friends and Cathy's parents. Luckily, we had enough
flat area to keep making bricks after the concrete slab was laid
and the carpenters had started construction. Some of the bricks
were made of soil from Alistair's own property in Eltham, by
a young girl who was staying there at the time. The bricks were
of a beautiful dusky pink hue, and it seemed a pity later on
when we had to render over them to match the remainder of the
Cathy did a lead lighting course,
as we wanted to add some colour and an additional personal touch
to the windows. My father had also been doing some leadlight
work and made a window for James's bedroom. Unfortunately, he
died before being able to make another for Anthony's room.
Some Diary Entries
These are just a few milestones
selected from my 1983 diary, which included some historical background
Friday 11 Feb: Excavator due
to start today.
Tuesday 15 Feb: Excavator to
start 'later this week'; M. Fraser's election speech.
Wednesday 16 Feb: Ash Wednesday
- true, devastating bushfires in Victoria and South Australia;
B. Hawke's election speech.
Tuesday 22 Feb: Phoned excavator
- definitely start this week.
Tuesday 1 March: Excavator started.
Saturday 3 March: Excavations
finished; Collected Alistair to see; Erected builder's power
pole; Bob Hawke elected as PM.
Saturday 12 March: Bought sand,
hose, workshed, mudbrick moulds; made our first mudbricks - 20
Sunday 13 March: Bill and Cath
helped with mudbricks; made 46.
Sunday 20 March: Bill, Cath and
Ross, and Bruce Bruen; 122 bricks.
Tuesday 12 April: Livio started
on concrete slab.
Friday 13 May: Laid first mud
bricks: seven courses @ two per course, total of fourteen bricks.
Saturday 14 May: Laid sixty-six
Sunday 15 May: Laid ninety-one
bricks; Bill and Cath (Cathy's parents) helped.
Tuesday 31 May: Builders completed
framework and roofing for Stage 1.
Saturday 25 June: Covered mud
bricks - heavy rain; brought them inside for cover.
Thursday 21 July: Internal walls
completed by David and Rob; Cath and Bill to Dinner for Cathy's
Tuesday 23 August: (Second day
of two-week holiday) Erected meter box into southern wall; James
(son) cut his hand.
Saturday 27 August: Two lead
light windows in, ten completed now, six to go.
Tuesday 30 August: Very wet,
didn't lay bricks; finished cutting lead light windows; party
for Pop's Birthday.
Friday 2 September: Collected
load of bricks from Eltham; Anthony (other twin son) cut his
Sunday 4 September: Last day
of 'holiday' - progressive count of bricks laid: 1,723.
Sunday 11 September: Extremely
adverse conditions all weekend - cold, wet and windy; wind moved
the shed and blew the shithouse down.
Sunday 25 September: Collected
kauri flooring from city.
Tuesday 27 September: Australia
won the America's Cup
Wednesday 28 September: Bricklayers
started on internal floor.
Saturday 1 October: Hired belt
sander for weekend, to sand kauri flooring (few more entries
like this on subsequent weekends - and eventually bought my own
Saturday 15 October: Very wet
weekend: unable to lay bricks; Alistair dropped in; pleased with
Wednesday 19 October: Carpenters
back to start internal walls etc.
Sunday 30 October: Put in last
four lead light windows and finished tallest wall - progressive
count 2,006 bricks.
Thursday 17 November: Cathy and
Ross (her brother) finished top of kitchen wall; ALL BRICKWORK
Total mud bricks laid: 2,060.
Sunday 20 November: Started rendering.
Thursday 15 Dec: House ready
Weekend 17-18 Dec: Moving in.
Wednesday 21 Dec: Started making
letter box; At Alistair Knox's for Xmas drinks and luncheon.
So, it took just under ten months
from the day excavations started to the day we moved in. Looking
back, with all things considered, that was a mighty effort by
For all those project managers
out there, it's amazing how one can get a project completed on
time and on budget, especially when the time and money is your
When we moved in to stage one,
the boys were still only seven years old and were able to share
one bedroom, while Cathy and I shared the other. Now we had the
benefit of being onsite plus a Summer of daylight savings to
help us for stage 2, being the top level containing the master
bedroom, en suite and study.
After a short Xmas break, we
continued on so that we would not lose momentum, and completed
the upstairs stage in 1984. This was a smaller section than the
first stage, and went relatively smoothly for us 'experienced'
mud-brick builders. We decided that time was of the essence,
so had the required 900 bricks made by others, or bought from
other people's excess holdings.
There is always a huge job to
be done over and above the building of the house structure itself,
and that is the garden, especially on an acre of land. We later
added a carport and workshop to keep the cars out of the weather
and had some major landscaping done. An Alistair Knox mud brick
home on an acre of land needs a few big rocks to complement it,
so we hired a professional, John Catanach, with his heavy machinery
and landscaping skills to do just that.
Alistair had warned us that it
would take about ten years to complete the whole project, and
he was spot on.
A Final Tribute
We lived in the home for ten
years, but changing work patterns and family structure dictated
that we move away from the one acre in Donvale to an apartment
in the city. There was a tug of emotion leaving our labour of
love, but we were able to close a beautiful chapter of our lives
and open another. Nothing will erase the wonderful memories of
building and living in an Alistair Knox mud-brick home.
Please see the Final Pilgrimage
page for details of a small event, many years later.
& Cathy Duff