15 March 2017

Going Up!

Being able to simply hoist your home up a few metres and create a new floor underneath has its advantages. But is it as simple as that?


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Seeing a house balanced precariously on a few blocks of wood always gives me the shivers. It just doesn’t look safe, but I’m assured it is.

Coming from a country where houses are built from bricks, and are firmly stuck to the ground with mortar, it’s more than a little disconcerting to see them teetering on what amounts to a pile of giant Jenga blocks.

That said, being able to simply hoist your home up a couple of metres and create a whole new floor underneath certainly has its advantages. But is it as simple as that? Obviously, no, otherwise Ponsonby would soon start to resemble something out of Minecraft.

Other than the physical limitations, there are strict rules in place governing how high you can go. These relate to the zone you live in, the height of surrounding houses, and the proximity of your home to others in your street – all of which combine to give you your ‘building envelope’. Calculating your building envelope is not a particularly difficult or costly exercise, but it is best tackled by a qualified surveyor.

Inevitably, there will be a need for some excavation. How much, will depend on the above added to the existing crawl space underneath your home. Then, there’s the matter of the services – mainly sewerage and storm-water. Those, too, can be calculated with relative ease.

So, assuming, a) it’s allowable, and b) it’s practical, what’s your next move, and what else do you need to know? Now would be a good time to talk to a building professional, like Hayden Searle from Reno Builders, who has over 10 years’ experience lifting and renovating houses around the Ponsonby and Grey Lynn area.

“Once you’re clear of heritage and height-to-boundary rules, then the construction bit of it is relatively straight forward,” says, Hayden. “First off, fireplaces and chimneys need to be removed. Typically, they’re bedded into the ground, so there’s no option there.” Hayden says fireplaces can be rebuilt once the house has been repositioned, or not, if the new design doesn’t call for it to be put back in. Also, if needed, a false chimney can be put back up to satisfy heritage requirements.

There’s going to be a certain amount of excavation whatever the project, even if it’s just to build new foundations. So how do you lift and support the house and simultaneously dig out the existing footings? “We can either position the sleeper stacks outside the building envelope and support the house on a series of RSJs (rolled steel joists) that span the width of the house, or we can sit the house on a series of moveable supports that can be relocated as required.”

Surprisingly, Hayden says that nearly half of his clients remain living in their homes whilst all this work is going on.

“It’s not pleasant,” he says. “It’s a step below camping, but it can be done.”

“Our jobs typically take 15-18 weeks, but they can vary more than that,” he says. Weather can also play its part in the build time. “Last week’s rain, for instance, was an exception, and has set us back a bit with a few of our jobs.” So is it worth planning your project for the summer? “Not really, because in the summer you lose time through public holidays, and in the winter you lose days through rain. They tend to even out, really.”

Builders moving a Freemans Bay villa in the early 1900's. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

Builders moving a Freemans Bay villa in the early 1900's. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

I joked earlier about brick buildings being stuck firmly to the ground, but Hayden says it is possible to lift brick-clad homes, but it’s not a particularly cost-effective thing to do, primarily because all the bricks need to be removed before the house can be lifted, then put back on afterwards. “You’re getting into the realms of a new build then,” he says.

When pressed on a cost for lifting a house and creating a new level, Hayden wouldn’t commit to a sum, other than saying prices start around a couple of hundred thousand dollars, even for a small house. “There are quite a few fixed costs before you even start the construction process – surveyors, council, engineers, architects, and then there’s the GST, the biggest line item in any construction cost.”

“But that’s not to say it’s not great value,” he goes on. “You getting huge lifestyle improvements as well as capital gain – so there’s two huge ticks in the win column. And the money you spend is still your money – it comes back to you when you decide to sell that house.”

No matter how you look at it, $200k is still a lot of money. So, is it cheaper to go up into the roof to gain your extra floor?

“If you go into the loft space, you will affect quite a bit of the house underneath, because you’ll have to support and reinforce the new floor,” he explains. “The only way to do that is to go through the existing building, so you’ll do a fair bit of damage to the ground floor, plus you’ll have to build some kind of structure underneath the house, anyway. So I’d say you’re better off going under than adding on top.”

In addition, if you live in a heritage area, you will find severe restrictions in what you can and cannot do to your roof in terms of altering the pitch, or adding dormers and skylights.

Another advantage of going under is that if you’ve got a landlocked garden, you can take advantage of the temporary access you’ll have to your rear yard. “We use small machinery under the house, so there’s no reason why it couldn’t be taken out the back to do some landscaping.”

The act of lifting up a house can create havoc with the internal walls from a decor point of view. “When we lift the house we go around and ease all the windows and straighten up the place, because none of these old wooden houses are ever completely square. So it creates an opportunity for some decorating, for sure,” smiles, Hayden.

Bang for buck, lifting your home is a great option – just make sure you get an experienced builder like Hayden involved from the get-go, just to keep an eye on the practical considerations and ensure your budget stays on track.

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