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Earthquake rebuild on sand not the only challenge

Earthquake rebuild on sand not the only challenge

A terminally ill Christchurch man and his family are determined to stay in South Brighton despite on-going earthquakes.

The order of the Grand Designs projects we see on TV is largely caused by building deadlines – what's finished and what's not. But this series could hardly have gone out on a higher note. 

The final show features a young family facing challenges that go way beyond the weather, the budget and the inevitable delays. 

Andrei and Abby Martin, and daughter Alice, are also managing the terminal cancer diagnosis Andrei received back in 2012. And they are building their house on a sand dune, just like the foolish man from the old parable. 

So all-in-all it's gripping viewing.  

Andrei Martin has a grand vision. He's a project manager and he wants to do more than simply build a beautiful house for his family. He wants to replace their charming, but structurally unsound old cottage on the South New Brighton sandspit in Christchurch with a prototype. 

He wants the house to serve as a blueprint for future earthquake rebuilds. "We've seen a massive growth (in housing) in Christchurch, but still houses are being built to the housing code minimum," he says. "We can do it better." By better, Martin means building faster and more cost effectively, with better insulation and sustainable design initiatives. 

The Martins chose to clad part of the house with Corten steel, which develops a rust patina. 

But, as with every Grand Designs build, nothing is that straightforward. Not only is this couple building on a sand dune, but there is a huge sink hole under the house where the sand has subsided. 

Once the old house is taken down – board by board – the geotechnical engineers come in and start drilling holes. And what do they find? "Fluffy sand," says one dry bloke. But as it turns out, the hard stuff is just a metre down, so it will be OK, so long as they have a hundred timber piles to spread the load. 

The Martins' house will feature structurally insulated wall panels, an insulated steel roof, solar panels and a decorative cladding of rusted Corten steel panels and sun-bleached timber, appropriate to the beachside suburb. It will comprise two pavilions, with the kitchen and family living area in the glazed linking element. 

Recylced elements include the pendants and the dining table, which features boards from every window in the original cottage. 

GD host, architect Chris Moller describes the house as "resilient, yet Modernist".  

But it's clear it is this young family that has the most resilience. When they talk about the cancer diagnosis, the groundbreaking treatment in Melbourne and the Givealittle page started by Andrei's sister, the tears well on both sides of the camera. "The community and complete strangers chipped in and gave me my life back," says Martin. "We are so grateful. Three years on we are still here and will be here for a lot longer, hopefully." 

We even get to see Martin's Melbourne specialist, Professor Rod Hicks, who says "Andrei is doing wonderfully well" although the neuroendocrine cancer is still there. He doesn't need to back for another scan for four months. 

"Coming here makes it real again, for a short period," Martin says in Melbourne. "I don't know when things are going to change or when I'm going to feel worse, so it's a matter of cramming as much into now while I can, and enjoying the life I have while I'm feeling good. You only get one chance in this world to leave your mark and I want to be proud of what I've done and who I am. It's really important."  

Alice in Wonderland - Alice sees her new bedroom for the first time during the reveal and is well pleased. 

The best bits of this episode are the family scenes, including the farewell party at the old cottage where everyone gets to write messages on the building. And there's a lovely scene with Abby Martin talking about the garden her husband planted, telling us just how much of him will always be there. 

It is the same with the house. Martin is giving it his all, and his determination to finish the build in just a few months pays off, even when he decides to source the wall panels in Australia and there are prolonged delays with the building consent and window joinery. He is also managing six other residential builds simultaneously, with his business partner. 

And yes, his wife does worry. "But this (project) is what he has always wanted to do. Passion for this stems back years and years. Nothing will stop him."  

We see exactly why Martin is excited about his prototype – from the prefabricated modular wall panels and extra-strong LVL timber and insulation to the special ventilation in the ceiling this is a house that makes a lot of sense in an earthquake city prone to temperature extremes. 

By the programme's end the house is not quite finished. The Australian timber cladding has been seized by inspectors at the border, but the Corten steel is up and looking great. So, too, is the glazed family living space with its beautiful garden outlook. 

And we get to see Alice in her very own wonderland as the cameras catch her first glimpse of her bedroom. Now that's a reveal. 

What about that budget? The $600,000 budget has climbed somewhere up towards $800,000, which they don't think is too bad. And they still managed to move in on time. But Martin is a bit disappointed the build took five months, instead of four. "Time is something that is very precious to us." 

But he also says, "This house is more than just us. It's a complete open door and it's an education for whoever wants to listen." 

We're listening.