Monthly Archives: December 2016

This How to choose the best fireplace for your family

As the colder weather creeps in, home heating starts becoming a real issue for many reasons. Not only do you need to keep warm but heating can be expensive if you don’t choose the right type.A fireplace not only warms but can become a focal point in your home just like a camp fire does outside.Fireplaces are now increasingly being designed into outdoor living areas. They’re a stylish way to make outdoor entertaining cosy and inviting, allow outdoor spaces to  be enjoyed all year.Fireplaces have a reputation of being environmentally unfriendly because of their inefficiencies and emissions, which can also have adverse health effects. However, good design, as well as choice and handling of fuel, can improve both the efficiency of the fire and the release of emissions.Issues to consider when adding a fireplace in your homeBurning wood compared to burning ethanol or gas requires different appliances due to the emissions they produce. These emissions can cause health and other problems, not only for you, but also your neighbours. Emissions need to be considered and planned for. Wood causes the most potent emissions, gas less than wood, and ethanol the least.Ventilation – When you’re using wood, gas or coal as a fuel source, the emissions need to be vented via a chimney or flue. Ethanol is a very clean burning fuel and does not require flue or chimney. However you do need to be aware of the ventilation issues with ethanol fuelled fire places.Contrary to popular believe ethanol fires can produce a substantial amount of heat and can also be portable.Building codes govern the building of fireplaces and chimneys, so consult your local council before you start, as regulations vary.Energy costs – The cost, availability and storage of the different fuels for your fireplace will also need to be considered when choosing a fireplace. Wood is available from many sources, some free. However wood is bulky and requires plenty of storage space. Gas is also easy to buy and store, but check if you have access to gas mains or bottled gas. If you are on mains your gas will be relatively cheap, but if you only have access to bottled gas your heating costs can be as expensive as electricity. Ethanol is becoming easier and cheaper to fid and buy because renewable energy sources are becoming popular.Comparison fuel efficienciesShown below is a comparison of fireplace fuel efficiencies. However before you make a choice you also need to consider the price of each type of fuel and the efficiency of the fireplace itself.

  • Wood – 4.4 kWh per kilogram
  • Natural gas – 10.8 kWh per kilogram
  • Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) – 13.8 kWh per kilogram
  • Ethanol – 8.3 kWh per kilogram

Wood fireplace efficiencyStandard open fireplace – up to 10% efficiency
Fireplace insert – 20 to 35% efficiency
Simple updraft stove or heater (not airtight) – 20 to 40% efficiency
Airtight stove or heater – 50 to 70% efficiencyA traditional open fireplace is very inefficient on fuel but they do look the part. Only a small amount of the heat it generates radiates out to the room. The remaining heat is lost in air passing out of the room, up into the chimney and then outside. Modifications and inserts can be made to make a wood fireplace more efficient, especially if it does not back onto an external wall. A well designed and located fireplace will enable more heat to be transmitted into your home, while ensuring that emissions are reduced.
Wood fireplace & heater choicesThe most basic fireplace is a simple open hearth. This is what most people envisage when they think of wood heating, with all the ambience of dancing flames. However charming as they may be, they can waste money in construction and energy costs and pollute the air. Improvements in technology allow new technology fireplaces to do a better job of heating a home.Fireplace inserts are hollow metal inserts built into an open fireplace. Rather than the heat going straight up the chimney air circulates around the insert and heats the room. Fireplaces can be further fitted with doors and air controls, as well as fans, to help move hot air into the room.An updraft stove, such as a potbelly stove, is an enclosed fireplace. Air entry is at an uncontrolled rate, which is why they are less efficient than a slow combustion heater.Slow combustion heaters are the most efficient. They combine an airtight firebox, air inlet controls, baffles and secondary air inlets and combustion chambers which maximises the conversion of the fuel into heat. Slow combustion heaters can reduce wood to almost nothing, leaving a smaller amount of ash to be cleaned out at the end.More efficient units can be fitted into existing masonry fireplaces to improve your home heating.The higher initial cost of a more efficient wood heater is repaid with more heat for each load of wood and less emissions.Advantages of wood heaters or fireplaces

  • Wood is a renewable resource
  • You can grow your own free fuel supply if you have the space and time
  • You can cut your own for free if you have access to trees
  • Ash can be used for the garden, but with care. It is a good source of potassium and phosphorus and some micro-nutrients, but be aware that it raises soil pH. Too much ash is not good for a garden.

Disadvantages of wood heaters or fireplaces

  • Wood is a bulky fuel, which impacts on its transport and storage
  • Wood needs a dry place to be stored. It should not be stored against the house, as it is a fire hazard and a home for rodents and termites
  • Wood is messy both before and after you burn it
  • Your flue or chimney will need to be regularly cleaned (so that it works efficiently and does not’t become a fire hazard)
  • Wood needs to be seasoned, which takes time. Burning unseasoned wood is not only less efficient, it will result in a build up of creosote in the flue or chimney, which can catch alight.

In Australia the guidelines are that wood heaters manufactured since 1992 must comply with AS/NZS 4013 to ensure smoke emissions are within a reasonable and safe limit. The installation of wood heaters is regulated by Australian Standard AS/NZS 2918. This states that you should have a minimum flue height of 4.6 metres, that it must be vertical, and the end of the flue cannot be near any windows or doors, so as to prevent expelled air from being pushed back into your home, among other things. If you need to view the Australian Standard ensure you are looking at the latest version, they are updated regularly.Gas heatersA gas fuelled heater burns natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas. They come in ‘flued’ and ‘unflued’ models. Remember: flue or not all gas heated rooms require some ventilation.An unflued heater can be a permanent fixture or portable. A portable model has the advantage of not taking up space in the warmer months. However, unflued heaters can be risky if safety procedures aren’t followed.Emissions from a gas heater are water vapour and carbon dioxide, but if there is incomplete combustion, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide can also be emitted. Room ventilation is needed to ensure that health problems don’t occur from these emissions – but this will cause some of your warm air to be lost.A flued heater permits the escape of harmful gases to the outside. A correctly operating flued heater is usually safe.One advantage of gas heaters over wood heaters is that wood fuelled heaters need to be flued vertically, whereas advances in technology allow gas heaters can be flued horizontally. This means that they can be installed in apartments and other locations that were not practical previously.Gas fuelled fireplaces can be made to look like wood burning fires, with all the advantages of a clean fuel with the traditional crackling fire appearance.Advantages of gas heaters

  • cleaner than wood or coal
  • readily available – if your are on main gas
  • natural gas is a good option if available directly to the home
  • Gas heaters produce approximately one third of greenhouse gas emissions of standard electric heaters.
  • A gas log fire has the look of a wood fire without the disadvantages
  • They have energy labels to help you choose the most efficient models.
  • Gas heaters do not need chimneys


  • Possibility of leaks
  • Malfunctioning units can emit carbon monoxide
  • They do require some cleaning as dirt and dust can clog them
  • Gaskets must be checked regularly
  • Vented fireplaces need regular checks for debris

Ethanol heaters & fireplacesEthanol is a relatively new fuel for home heating. It is a natural fuel produced by industrial fermentation of sugar in sugar cane or starchy grains. The extracted alcohol is concentrated then dehydrated to form bio-ethanol. Bio does not mean organically grown, it means that it is derived from living plants. This means that it is a renewable energy.Ethanol heaters come in a range of styles, from small table top models to full sized heaters, and outdoor ones. They can be off the shelf ones, or custom designed, but buy from a reputable company, for your own peace of mind.Advantages

  • Ethanol burning fireplaces don’t require a flue or vent, as ethanol burns cleanly.
  • Self installation is possible. The product will work straight from the box.
  • Fuel is clean and easy to handle
  • No smoke
  • No ashes to clean up and dispose of.
  • No chimney to clean
  • Minimal maintenance
  • Can be used to convert an existing wood or gas fireplace
  • Can be stored away in warm weather


  • Uses oxygen in the room and produces carbon dioxide
  • Produces water vapour

Both disadvantages can be minimised with adequate room ventilation, but they shouldn’t be used in a room without  windows.

  • Some odour is possible with refilling, first lighting and when extinguishing the flames
  • A floor standing model is not a good idea around pets or children; consider a wall mounted one instead
  • Fuel is a flammable substance and care needs to be taken, and a fire extinguisher kept on hand. The units should not be refueled when the fireplace is hot. Hands must be washed after refueling, and before the fireplace is lit.

In conclusionIn the end how you choose a fireplace will depend on your aesthetics, your budget, and the practicality of sourcing a sufficient amount of fuel.

Design and construction of stairs and staircases

When designers are planning spaces within the home stairs are often redesigned many times before they are built. Stairs not only need to be located in an appropriate location, but they must be comfortable to use and safe for their users.

Here are 5 essential tips to ensure your stairs are designed and constructed for comfort, style & safety. Remember all items should be confirmed by referring to the latest Australian building code (BCA).

Location, location, location

Deciding on the location of your stairs needs to occur early in the design phase.

Staircase location can vary depending on your requirements but most stairs are centrally located and handy to the main entrance as well as the main living space. Note in the plan below, the orange coloured stairs are in a good central location; i.e. close to the entry and living areas. This saves travel time around the home and offers privacy to other spaces in the home. The brown coloured stairs are not in a good central location. They force people to go through the dining area and also make users spend more time getting to other areas in the house.

Stairs can take up a considerable amount of space. You may need to factor in circulation space around the stairs as well. You can safely assume that a staircase will require a minimum width of 1.1m and a minimum height of 3.5m long. In a typical Australian house is not uncommon for a staircase to be 1.4m wide x 5.9m long.

Do not forget your stair dimensions will need to be mirrored onto all floor plans.

Avoid designing stairs any narrower than 880mm wide when finished (i.e. with plasterboard on walls). Australian standards for stair construction will allow for narrower stairs but narrower stairs will be uncomfortable to use, especially if you install a hand rail or have winders.

Plan B: Efficient use of space (click to enlarge image)

If space and costs are an issue, keep your stairs simple and multifunctional. Plans A & B above show storage spaces underneath the stairs. This is common with staircase design It is done to avoid wasted space and to hide stairs that would otherwise interfere with head heights in other spaces.

If you have no choice but to include stairs in habitable areas (these are areas that require a ceiling height of 2.4m) there are a few tips from the trades you should know.

Stairs – Section Plan (click to enlarge image)

Tips from the trades

  1. Use the underside of your stair as a lighting bulkhead (See section above)
  2. Only 2/3 of a habitable room needs to have a ceiling height of 2.4 the rest can be lower (please check with the latest BCA requirements).
  3. A bathroom is not considered a habitable space and can have ceilings as low as 2.1m high (please check with the latest BCA requirements).
  4. Ensure the finished underside of your stair in no less than 2m off finished floor level near doorways.

Stair types & dimensioning

There are three types of stairs – traditional, contemporary and concrete. Variations on these are; conventional, spiral, circular and open-riser.

Types of stairs

Straight flights

The simplest form of stairs is the straight flight. These are generally built with or without landings with a maximum of 18 treads in each run. Most straight flight stairs are built against a wall or between two walls. This reduces the amount of space accommodating the stair. Mid-flight landing depths are traditionally the same width as the stair width. The BCA will allow lengths of mid-flight landings to be as little as 750mm.

No landing allowances are included in above table, if required just add a minimum of 800mm to your landing length. Also remember flights must not have more than 18 rises in one flight, landings must be added between flights.

90 degree flights

The 90 degree flight is very space efficient for small two story dwellings or town houses. The 90 degree flight is usually built against many walls meeting internal and external walls.

It is possible to change the direction of a wall and stair to follow a different angle like 30 degrees or 45 degrees.

Return flights

The return flight stair is the most common stair used in Australia for flats and houses and can include Half or Quarter landings. See stair flight drawing below. Return flights may be built as free standing but are normally built against walls (it depends on design requirements).

A traditional circular stair has treads that are cantilevered of a circular surrounding wall, this type of stair is costly and is uncommon in residential construction. Much more common is the circular stair that cantilevers it’s treads off a central load bearing post typically made of steel or timber. This type of stair requires little space and is self-supporting, but is trickier to travers than a typical straight flight for example.

Ladder stairs

There is another stair option that can take up even less space than a spiral stair, Ladder stairs. They are a cross-between a ladder and a stair and can be bought premade and folded into an attic space or you can build one as a permanent fixture, just like a stair. Ladder stairs need to be designed very well to comply with BCA requirements.


Before you choose what stair materials you will be using ensure that it is within your budge and meets your usage requirements.

Here are a few ideas on stair materials:

  • Polished concrete & tiles are hard-wearing and very modern but can be very noisy.
  • Timber is traditional but requires maintence and is noisy
  • Carpet = quiet, warm, safe and wears quickly
  • Glass = ultra expensive
  • Industrial grate


  • Riser min. and max. dimensions = 115 to 190mm
  • Run min. and max dimensions = 240 to 355mm
  • Most comfortable stair rise and run is 160 x 260mm
  • Railings must not be less than 850mm height at the nose of the stair.
  • Open risers must not allow a sphere shaped object 125mm or larger to pass through riser openings.
  • Quietest stair – reinforced concrete stair with carpet, cork, rubber or similar.
  • The safest stair is a return fight with:
    1. a handrail,
    2. carpet,
    3. risers 160mm rise x260mm run
    4. full block hand railing/balustrade

How Reducing noise inside and outside the home

Recent studies have shown that living in a noisy home that endures constant erratic noises can reduce your life span. Not only does it affect longevity but living in a noisy home generally provides an unrelaxing atmosphere.

Reducing noise or poor acoustics in and around your home isn’t difficult, especially if you‘re building a new home. All that is required is a little planning during the design phase to ensure the acoustics inside and outside the home have been considered and addressed.

So what is noise?

Noise is defined as a loud or unpleasant sound that causes disturbance. Noise around the home is often caused by sound bouncing off one surface to another (reverberation). There are three essential rules to reduce reverberation:

  1. Minimise opportunities for reverberation
  2. Introduce sound soakers
  3. Incorporate noise distractors

Generally, the more a surface of a space is flat, continuous and unperforated the more sounds will be bounced around within that space. These types of surfaces will increase noise.

Below we describe how you can incorporate the rules mentioned above to minimise noise in your home.

Inside the home

Reduce the size of open spaces

Open plan areas that contain smooth and continuous surfaces are excellent at reflecting internal noise around the home as well as amplifying external noises into the home. Try reducing the size of open plan areas not only in actual floor area but also in ceiling height as well. Read more about reducing open spaces.

Incorporate perforated panels

If you already have a large open space you can reduce noise by incorporating perforated panels to items like cupboard doors, kitchen cabinets and stair balustrades for example.  This will offer internal spaces more absorbent and irregular surfaces for noise to dissipate in.

Relocate noisy spaces

To reduce house born noises it is very important to locate noise producing areas in well thought out spaces. Halls and stair wells for example can act as noise conductors or speakers. Don’t face TV’s, kitchens, WC’s or stereo systems onto a stair well or hall, as the noises created in these spaces will be transmitted and often amplified into areas close by.

Walls – reduce hard / reflective coverings

There are other options to products like plasterboard. The options are a little more expensive but if you really need to reduce noise try these options.

3D Wall Linings

Acoustic sheets & batts

  • 3D walling
  • Cedar battens
  • Decorative mouldings
  • False curtains

All these products reflect sound in an irregular pattern while absorbing sound at the same time. Even wallpaper absorbs sound much better than a hard flat uncovered wall surface. See more aboutwall linings.

Acoustic sheet & batt insulation

A timber stud wall that contains either batt or sheet acoustic insulation will transmit far less noise than an uninsulated wall. Installing insulative wall products around private areas like bedrooms, bathrooms and toilets, reduces noise transmission into and out of these spaces. Read more aboutinsulation.

Not all plasterboards are the same

New age plasterboards are designed to deaden noise while offering a higher plaster finish, compared to standard pasterboards like Gyprock.Knauff’s OPAL plasterboard wall sheeting has been design specifically for in home use. It’s a sandwich type product (similar to standard plasterboard) containing a high density gypsum core with heavy duty external paper. It not only has much better acoustic abilities but also has superior impact performance.

Detailed windows

Windows that have detail included such as transoms’, mullions and multiple operable parts will also help to reduce noise reverberation. For example a window that is large and has one fixed glazed panel will reflect noise much better than a bank of glass louvres of the same size.  See information on window types.


Gyprocked ceilings are the most economical ceiling option but if you need to further reduce noise reverberation there are other options that can help greatly. Take a look at options like coffered ceilings, perforated ply panels, fabric panels and acoustic sheeting. All these options can greatly reduce sound in a space. See more on ceilings.


Use hard floor surfaces sparingly. Noises on surfaces such as tiles, concrete & stone floors reverberate amazingly well. Try replacing these noisy floor coverings with options like rubber, new age vinyl, carpet or cork flooring. Most modern composite floor coverings also offer acoustic underlays to reduce reverberation.

New age composite products are also available.Products like Knauff One Pro are a sandwich type product available in loose-laid tiles. They are easy to clean, have excellent acoustic abilities, come in on-trend large tile formats and are stone like finish.

Ensure you ask about this option before you purchase your flooring product.

Double glazed windows & doors

To ensure your home can be a quiet home if you choose, the entire building envelope needs to be constructed to keep out noise. Windows are a common source of noise transmission, even when they are closed. There are different levels of window quality and most window companies will have an economical range and a high end range. It should be noted that all windows are manufactured to keep water out but it’s only the higher end windows that have better frame and glazing construction and materials that also keep out cold air, hot air as well as noise. Double glazing for example has an air gap between two pieces of glazing and the frame is also enhanced in design to ensure noises are kept outside.

Incorporate soft furnishings

Adding soft furnishings to a space is probably the easiest and most cost effective option when trying to reduce internal noise, great for people that are renting their home. Items like fabric covered privacy screens, cushions, fabric covered lounges, paintings, curtains, large rungs and blinds work a treat in reducing hard surface areas and absorbing noise. These ideas also have the added bonus of keeping your home warmer in winter. See more interior design.

Outside the home

Choose the right fencing

Avoid introducing hard and reflective fencing surfaces into your yard. These fence types will definitely help bounce on site & external sounds around your yard. If you’re looking to reduce the reflective noise quality of your existing fence, add an irregular surface to the fence or build a new fence that has an irregular surface and that can soak up the invasive sounds. Using treatments like Willow fencing and laser cut screens not only reduce the reflective abilities of an existing fencing but also offer visual relief to a plain fence surface.

You can also purchase specialised acoustic fencing product that will help keep out external noises. “ModularWalls” supply a modular fencing system that is simple & quick to install and reduce traffic noise greatly, they even have a DIY pack.

Reduce hard landscaping

As we discussed earlier very flat surfaces reflect the most noise, so large areas of smooth paving and concrete are not a good idea if you’re trying to reduce noise in your backyard. If you must have a large hard landscaped area, try using course stone bitumen instead. This mix uses larger pieces of blue metal which helps absorb and reflect noises in different directions, unlike concrete that reflects noise very well and does not absorb noise.

Plant plants

  1. Plant lots of variety – Generally adding any type of plants to your yard will offer lots of irregular surfaces for sounds like traffic noises to bounce off. The more plants you introduce the more noise will absorbed and not reflected back onto other surfaces. If you plant different types of plants at different heights and structure types, noises will be reduced further as there will be lots of irregular surfaces.
  2. Plant noisy plants – There are quiet plants and noisy plants. By choosing a noisy plant, like a native Casuarina or a dwarf Eucalyptus you can help muffle traffic noise with rustling and whistling sounds that are also very calming.
  3. Plant bird attracting plants – If you’re going to the effort of planting to improve reverberation in your yard choose varieties that will also attract birds. The sounds of birds chirping will not only help to muffle external sounds around your site but it will also offer another historically relaxing sound to users. See more on plants that attract birds.

Water feature

Adding some kind of water feature into your yard will add another distraction to external noises. Whether it’s a pond with a trickling feature or a pool with a waterfall feature, it’s just another item that will help muffle sounds.

Noise pollution in your life can shorten your lifespan and can also create an unrelaxing environment in and around your home.  Reducing reflective surfaces in your home and introducing noise soakers and distractors will reduce noise in your home. Trying just a few of the ideas above will make a difference in reducing noise pollution in your home.

Choose a building designer

Do you need an architect?

For designing houses you usually do not need an architect. All that is strictly required is having an engineer sign off on the structure and council approval. You can design and draft up the whole thing yourself, but don’t go there because it is unlikely that your design will be approved without at least some professional input.

In Australia an architect is (legally) someone who is accredited with the Architect’s Registration Board of each state. For residential projects you do not legally require an architect, so many architecture graduates simply do not bother getting official accreditation and use the generic title “Building Designer” instead. There are other building designers who have lesser qualifications, and they may well be just as good at designing houses (e.g. experienced draftsman), but there are also some designers who really do not know what they are doing.

How to find an architect or building designer

  • Use the Internet – this website, for example, has an online directory of building designers. Try it, just enter your postcode:  
  • Word of mouth: If you have friends or family who recently built or extended their house, ask them how it went and whether they’d recommend that designer.
  • Houses around you: Go for a bike ride and have a look at what’s being built around you. If there’s anything you particularly fancy, contact the owners and ask them who designed their house.
  • Old fashioned methods: classifieds ads, notice boards, etc.

Choosing the right architect or building designer:

Your building designer needs to be on the same page as you with a lot of things. This includes:

  • Budget: Make sure you let them know how much you can afford to spend. Be specific and give a dollar value. Allow the conversation to move on, describe all the things you want and brainstorm ideas together. Then, ask how much they anticipate you will need to spend. Did they remember that you already told them how much you could afford? If not, that’s a massive red light.
  • Scope of the project: What do you need? What is the building going to be used for and how do you plan to use it? What kind of activities do you plan to undertake? Do you paint? Sew? Read a lot in bed? These can all influence the design.
  • Your ideas: What you want. What kind of materials and finishes are you into? This is your vision. The designer should not be trying to “own the idea” or impose a design on you because it will look good in a design magazine.

Your building designer also has to be capable. There are many instance where an architect or building designer draws up plans for a house that are subsequently rejected by council.

  • Ask what will be delivered. Will they be fully dimensioned and complete plans, sections and elevationsor will you end up with a pretty pencil drawing? Make sure this information is included in any contract you sign. If the designer is vague about it, ask to see an example of a finished project. If you aren’t sure if its build-able, find a builder who can verify the usefulness of the end drawings.
  • Find other buildings that have been designed by the same building designer and find out if they had any problems with the drawings. Other important things to find out are whether the builders had any other issues working with the designer, whether they are happy with the end result (did they get what they want) and does the building have any issues? The biggest problem with funky designs is generally leaking windows and rooves (this can be the builder’s fault as much as the designer’s).
  • Ask local builders. This is especially important if you live in a small town with only a few building designers. They know which designer is the best and will be able to give you hundreds of examples of designer’s mistakes (that said, your local architect will be able to provide that same information about builders)!
  • Don’t assume anything. Some older designers haven’t learnt from their mistakes and continue to make mistakes right through their careers. Many don’t keep up with professional development and have outdated techniques. Older building designers who still use pen and paper instead of a computer to draft up their designs are a great example of this. Some young designers have a surprising amount of experience behind them. You can never tell just on looks!
  • Ask lots of questions. Even silly ones. You should get an answer for every question you ask. If they don’t know something they should admit it and at least know where to go in order to find the answer for you.
  • Trust your instincts! If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t!