Ruth Ritchie house, Elizabeth Bay


Jon King, of
Design King Company
Architect


2011

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Ruth Ritchie
Client

Just two months before completion, two floors of my three-storey home were flooded—the result of a most unlikely act of god. Architect Jon King and builder John Fielding broke the news as gently as possible, and suggested I wait until the worst of the damage had been cleaned up. 

In building terms this was a crime scene. 

The perfectly protected pristine recycled floorboards were going to be ripped up. The mud and sludge that coated the brickwork and veneers were stubborn to budge. 

It was days before I revisited the site, to find teams of disappointed dedicated men going about the job of undoing, then redoing, perfect work. It was a low point in the very long slow patience-testing experience of demolishing and building a house.

Every time we build we learn more about ourselves than about building and builders. Sure, we learn what we’d do next time; more of this, less of that. Yet it is in that first year after completion that we know with certainty if we would ever use the same builder again. After months here, I know we have settled into the most amazing home. Still, somebody from Bellevarde returns every few weeks, tinkering and getting details just right, exactly the way John Fielding likes it.

I could wax lyrical about the quality of the finishes, bricklaying you could eat your dinner from, and tiling that abuts joinery with ridiculous precision. I could relate in tedious detail the level of quality control, the efficiency and organization of the building site (even when dropping in unannounced) and the consistent high calibre of all the specialist trades employed.

The expectation is that at this very high level, everything should go smoothly. But that’s not the nature of building. And the bigger, riskier and more unconventional the project, the more chance there is to come adrift. However it’s evident that Bellevarde has tremendous experience in calculating what those chances might be, serious runs on the board solving complex problems, and a history of collaboration with terrific architects bringing challenging design into fruition. 

To build a house is a vast embarkation. Trust and respect are at least as important as skills and awards; perhaps more so. Accordingly, it was reassuring to find so many of Bellevarde’s clients still talking, years after the trucks and tradies have gone, about John Fielding’s work and character. It’s very unusual for a builder’s standards to be as high, or higher than, the client’s.

As a serial renovator for the last twenty-five years, and while meaning no discredit to all the wonderful builders with whom I have worked in the past, if I were mad enough to build again, I would call John Fielding. 

For the first time since 1988, I don’t have plans in council, but if ever that should change…


Jon King, of
Design King Company
Architect

John Fielding just loves houses that present a challenging architectural vision—which he can then build perfectly. He believes the key to capturing the architectural vision is bringing all the parties together.

So Ruth, our site manager Morgan, John and I all got together on site every time important decisions needed to be made—at least once each week for the eighteen-month construction.

Within this framework John doesn’t force the pace; rather, he encourages everyone to raise their issues and contribute and listen and share openly—until we reach the best possible conclusion. 

A classic example of the way the process unfolded was the time and effort we all put into harmonising the interior and exterior colours of the house. This is not an issue when you cover bricks with plaster or render, and then paint them.  But Ruth and I wanted the entire interior and exterior of the house faced with bricks straight from the kiln.

First we needed one hundred thousand bricks for the entire house. Happily, at heart John is a brickie. That is why he drove Ruth and me down to the Bowral brickworks so we could understand the complexities involved.

We wanted classic old style bricks: Bowral Blues and Gertrudis Browns, baked in an old-style domed kiln. It is the kiln that imparts the bricks’ character.  

Brick colour is determined by the clay, where the bricks are placed in the kiln, the ratio of gas to fresh air, and the maximum baking temperature. As the burners are at the top of the kiln, the higher the bricks, the darker they are. Moreover, the closer they are to the wall the more air and less heat they absorb, which also adds new layers and dimensions of colour.

So, even though they all go in looking the same, they emerge seven days later with colours ranging from red, through rust, to eggplant, and ultimately almost black. Normally these colours are loaded as they come from the kiln—so each pallet contains one colour. This means that, to achieve harmony and richness, you need to blend the colours. 

We arranged for the colours to be mixed as they were loaded for delivery. When they arrived on site the brickies’ labourer then went through the pallets selecting each brick according to colour and laying them out on a flat surface to the precise dimensions of all the walls in the room—then together with the bricklayer, they carefully moved the bricks around until the colours harmonised both vertically and horizontally throughout the room. The bricks were then scrubbed by hand and laid. They repeated this for each room interior—then repeated the entire process for the exterior. 

Next came the question of mortar. We decided on this by building sample sections of wall so we could consider every possible variation—precisely how deep the mortar should be (the standard 10mm, or thicker, or thinner); should it be finished flush, or round, or raked; and exactly what colour worked best, from a spectrum of dark brown to natural. 

As the house has neither skirting boards nor architraves, each course of bricks had to be perfectly level inside and out throughout the three storeys.  And they are. 

The colours and textures of the bricks and mortar play a pivotal role in defining the house—as they will for a hundred years.

This wonderful, collective, instructive process led to brickwork that is par excellence. It was the same with every facet of building Ruth’s house. We delivered a house as perfect as all of us could make it. 

Building a house properly has been a deeply rewarding experience.

It was like attending an eighteen-month masterclass.