Jim & Cathy Duff's Knox muddie

Photo Gallery

 Early Stage OneStage TwoFinishedLeadlights etcPilgrimage

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 IT world.

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 of occupancy.

Did we get there? Read on.

Getting Started

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.

Getting Stuff

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 the fireplaces.

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 cost.

Making Mud Bricks and Leadlight Windows

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 walls.

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 entries.


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 of!

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 bricks.

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 birthday.

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 finger.

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 sander).

Saturday 15 October: Very wet weekend: unable to lay bricks; Alistair dropped in; pleased with progress.

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 FINISHED !

Total mud bricks laid: 2,060.

Sunday 20 November: Started rendering.

Thursday 15 Dec: House ready for occupancy.

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 all concerned.

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 own.

Stage 2

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.

Stage 3

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.

Email: Jim & Cathy Duff

Home: www.byohouse.com.au