How to reap the re­wards of build­ing on a dif­fi­cult site

If you know the prob­lems up­front, build­ing on a site with chal­lenges can reap big re­wards, writes Kirsten Craze

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - Home - - FRONT PAGE -

Chances are you will be flat out try­ing to find a level block to build your dream house on, but just be­cause a plot of land is “tricky” doesn’t mean the project is a no-go.

Whether your po­ten­tial site is slop­ing, dif­fi­cult to ac­cess, flood prone or just plain awk­ward, there are savvy so­lu­tions for home­own­ers will­ing to do their home­work and en­gage the right peo­ple for the job.


John Law­son, co-di­rec­tor at builders Law­son and Lovell, says work­ing on a site that has dif­fi­cult ac­cess can add at least 10 per cent to the over­all cost of the job. This site (pic­tured) was only ac­ces­si­ble by wa­ter, with builders RW Stid­will Con­struc­tions bring­ing ma­te­ri­als in by barge and work­ing around the tides.

“What adds up is the ma­te­ri­als’ han­dling which is get­ting the ma­te­ri­als up, or the de­mo­li­tion ma­te­ri­als and waste down,” John says.

In a re­cent north­ern beaches project, John says of the to­tal build cost of $1.4 mil­lion, about $120,000 was spent on mov­ing ma­te­ri­als on and off the site.

“One way of ma­te­ri­als han­dling is just get­ting labour­ers to carry ev­ery­thing up and down, which isn’t the most ef­fi­cient way. You’re bet­ter off get­ting a crane or ma­te­rial-han­dling equip­ment like con­veyor belts and lad­der hoists so you’re not re­ly­ing on labour,” he says.

Eli Gescheit, ur­ban plan­ner from Navon So­lu­tions, has worked with many un­usual plots and says a bat­tle-axe block can have its pros and cons.

“The catch is while it might be a nice piece of land, you’re prob­a­bly deal­ing with more neigh­bours than an or­di­nary block,” he says.

“So, you need to be con­scious of the de­sign, where win­dows are go­ing to be and any pri­vacy is­sues.”

“All of the blocks that have the best amenity gen­er­ally have risk as­so­ci­ated with the builds. Bush­fire zones of­ten en­joy nice bush out­looks and flood zones of­ten en­joy lake or sea views” Steve Condliffe, GJ Gard­ner Homes


Steve Condliffe, a new homes con­sul­tant with GJ Gard­ner Homes, says soil type and mother na­ture also play a big role in how to tackle your new build.

“Sandy soil is of­ten the eas­i­est of site con­straints to deal with,” Steve says. “The blocks are usu­ally flat and any prob­lems are typ­i­cally sorted out in a day with lit­tle de­sign com­pro­mise to the client as well as cer­tainty in the engi­neer­ing for the builder.”

Al­ter­na­tively, Steve says bush­fire zones that are in a flame zone can sit out­side the build­ing code.

“Blocks that are in a flame zone and on a slop­ing block are the least de­sir­able to work with as they’re costly to con­struct and there are lim­i­ta­tions to the de­sign scope to meet the non-com­bustible ma­te­rial re­quire­ments,” he says.

If you’re in a bush­fire zone you need to be aware of your block’s BAL rat­ing, which mea­sures the dif­fer­ent lev­els of ex­po­sure to fire dan­ger — and con­struc­tion re­quire­ments to meet the code.

If you’re in a flood zone, de­pend­ing on the height of the flood level and foun­da­tion re­quire­ments of the land, Steve says you need to be aware of the soft ground.

“Be­cause it is near wa­ter, an ad­di­tional depth of pier­ing is re­quired and if there is some acid sul­fate present, that could mean ex­tra cost,” he says.

But de­spite the hur­dles a dif­fi­cult block can present, Steve says it is more than likely for a good rea­son.

“All of the blocks that have the best amenity gen­er­ally have risk as­so­ci­ated with the builds,” he says. “Bush­fire zones en­joy nice bush out­looks and flood zones of­ten en­joy lake or sea views.”


Once you’ve got your heart set on a block that has the po­ten­tial to be “tricky” the goal is to gather your dream team.

Eli ad­vises that as well as get­ting an ar­chi­tect and a builder to in­spect the site as early as pos­si­ble, an ur­ban or town plan­ner is also key.

“Ar­chi­tects and town plan­ners go hand-in-hand,” Eli says. “We kind of pre­dict what the is­sues are go­ing to be — and there will be prob­lems, even if it’s a flat piece of land.”

“We work with the ar­chi­tect to make sure the plans com­ply as much as pos­si­ble with reg­u­la­tions while also look­ing at other po­ten­tial set­backs.”

Eli says he prefers to be in­volved from the start.

“Some­times ar­chi­tects send me a project be­fore start­ing a de­sign and ask me what the reg­u­la­tions or im­pacts I can see that will have to be ad­dressed and, at that point, we can work on the de­sign to­gether,” he says.

“Whereas some­times I’m en­gaged by mums and dads who give me the plans right be­fore they’re ready to launch and they say, ‘we’re ready to start next week’. But at that point it’s a bit too late be­cause some­times we’ll have to re­design.”

John Law­son says home­own­ers should think be­yond just the house de­sign when an­tic­i­pat­ing any po­ten­tial coun­cil re­quire­ments.

“Most coun­cils re­quire a traf­fic man­age­ment plan to get the con­struc­tion cer­tifi­cate,” John says.

“And the builder has to let the coun­cil know how they in­tend to work on that site ma­te­rial-wise and what they may need to get the ma­te­ri­als up and down — and that costs money too.”


“You’ve got to think about the de­sign of the house. If there’s a slope, then it’s more than likely there will be stairs and the build will fol­low the ty­pog­ra­phy of the land, but you could end up with a floor­plan that isn’t as easy to deal with,” says Eli from Navon So­lu­tions. “If you’ve got kids or elderly peo­ple liv­ing there, it com­pli­cates things.”

Eli says the po­si­tion­ing of win­dows and bal­conies comes into play again with slop­ing blocks.

“I al­ways ad­vise my clients when de­sign­ing that they can’t just think of the house in iso­la­tion, they have to think of the neigh­bours too,” he says.

“A big con­sid­er­a­tion is also storm wa­ter. So, if you have a site that slopes to the rear, a storm wa­ter engi­neer will tell you the best way to push storm wa­ter away from the prop­erty is to pump it to the street.”

But Eli says coun­cils are go­ing to be mind­ful of flash flood­ing when wa­ter can flow to ad­join­ing prop­er­ties and an ease­ment may be re­quired.

“That’s where you’ve got drain pipes from your prop­erty go­ing through a neigh­bour’s prop­erty and out to­wards the street. Be aware that this can be­come a costly ex­er­cise,” he says.

There is the op­tion of lev­el­ling out or dig­ging into slop­ing land to cre­ate a flat build­ing site but coun­cils aren’t al­ways keen on that ei­ther.

“If the land slopes to the rear and you try to put a bit of soil at the back to raise it, storm wa­ter can flow in an un­nat­u­ral di­rec­tion,” Eli says.

“If you raise the height of the block, that can put the build­ing higher and there could be shad­ow­ing that im­pacts on the neigh­bours.”

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