Using permaculture ethics & design principles to transform an old energy guzzling bungalow into a showcase of sustainable design. It's about energy cycling, building community, self-reliance,creatively using & reusing materials... all without spending heaps of money.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Opportunity missed

Principle 3: Obtain a yield

When the local newspaper arrives I head straight for the readers' bargains. You never know what people are getting rid of that may be useful. I found an advertisement for a demolition job in town and rang up the guy to check out what was available.

I was interested in the framing timber. Seasoned hardwood framing timber is very hard to work with, as joinery needs to be pre-drilled - but it's perfect for decking. I asked the guy if he was interested in exchanging labour for materials - and he was. I called up a couple of days later and he had changed his mind. The reason? I should have a 'red card' (see below) to go onto a building site.

I asked about accessing the building site with a registered builder after he had removed all that he wanted from the site, but he refused. I guess there was nothing in it for him, except the risk of something going wrong... fair enough.

I did some research and found out that a 'red card' is now called a 'Construction Induction Card'. It's a day-long course that trains you in safety on a building site and costs about AU$150. I've decided to do one - if another opportunity like this one presents itself, I'll be ready to act.

Meanwhile, none of the framing timber was salvaged - it was all chewed up by big machines and sent to the tip. What a waste! The proverb for the second principle of permaculture - 'make hay while the sun shines' - points out that opportunities of abundance are only available for short periods of time, and you need to be ready to take advantage.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Make mulch while the sun shines

Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy and
Principle 6: Produce no waste

Understanding the value of embodied energy, or emergy, is very important in permaculture design. Often value is only considered in $ terms, but when we look at the amount of energy that is used to create a product, and how much energy it holds, we can value it in different ways.

Most people that I have spoken to have told me that I should get the house demolished, or even burn it down! But I see the existing buildings on the site as valuable resources. Lots of energy has gone into cutting the trees, milling the timber and transporting it, via middlemen (women?), to this house site. The timber sequesters carbon which, if burnt, would be released into the atmosphere. I'd rather use what I can of it, even though it takes my time and energy to prepare and store it, and keep the carbon locked up. Also, by reusing existing resources I place less demand on the production and transportation of new resources, and I don't have to pay for them.

When the Red Gum was felled there was a mountain of twigs and branches, along with the larger stuff. Fortunately I have a friend with an 8 horse power shredder who allowed me to borrow it so that I could turn the mountain into a molehill.

Shredding up the branches from the Red Gum that was felled on site

The mission took 2 half days, with 2-3 people and consumed about 5 litres of fuel. The result was as a massive pile of small branches, and a pile of mulch. I was thinking after we finished the job, what would they have done in the 'olden days'? Burnt it, and in fact, that's often what is still done.

The original contractor that I got to quote on the job wanted to take the whole lot to the recycling depot - where they would shred it, and buy a load of mulch from them for the garden (which is apparently quite cheap). I have a few concerns with this; the excessive use of fossil fuels, the added $ cost (I have time, not much $) and I lose some great resources.

When I consider paying for services that I could do myself, I don't just think about the $ cost, but also how much work I would have to do to pay for that service. Say I paid someone to clear up the site for me for $1000. I would have to earn about twice that to pay for it, and use lots of resources in the process. Why? When I earn money I have to pay tax on that income, so I need to earn more. I have to cover the costs associated with earning that money, transport to work, food and drinks, buying stuff because I want to reward myself for doing work I don't enjoy... it all adds up. On top of that, it would take me a lot longer to earn $2000 than do the job. Instead I got a couple of friends to help me and got some exercise in the process (so I don't need to go to the gym). I also get another benefit from working with local friends: it helps build community - I'll make myself available to help them when they need it.

Now I have these resources, that I truly value because I had to work so much to create them, I need to think about the most productive way to utilise them. Some ideas are that the branches could be used to make a funky fence, or perhaps some bush furniture? They could always be used as firewood, but I'll try to find another use for them before it gets burnt. The mulch could be used on the garden (when I get around to making one) or maybe I'll use it in the composting loo? I'd like to retain as much of the Red Gum on site, where it came from.

Job done! Brian (one of my helpers) looking over the cleared site with a pile of branches behind.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A sense of community

Principle 1: Observe and Interact

When I rented houses in inner city Melbourne I never made much of an effort to meet my neighbours. Life was very busy in the city, catching up with friends, work, going out, shopping, meetings, etc, etc... Most people around me spent their time in their homes, not outside - and when they went out it was often in their cars - so I rarely saw them. I kept pretty much to myself and so did just about everyone else around me. I always felt that there was something wrong about this situation but couldn't quite put my finger on it.

Since buying the house in Seymour I have made a much greater effort to meet neighbours. I attribute this largely to the fact that I have become a home owner, rather than a renter - so I have greater rights and responsibilities. But also, I feel more settled than I once did, that I'll be around for a while, and I see the value in building community with the people around me.

Introducing myself to the neighbours wasn't hard, in fact, quite the opposite. The hard bit is knocking on the front door, after that it's easy - "Hi, I just bought the house next door...". I found out quite a lot about the history of the place, the people, and heard stories about old Jack who owned the house previously. I also shared some of my story, where I am at, and what I am thinking of doing with the place. People like to know who they are living next to and what it happening around them - fair enough eh? I think that introducing yourself is best done right at the start, as the longer you leave it, the less likely it is to happen.

Working on the house site generates quite a bit of interest from people passing by too. I'll always stop what I am doing, introduce myself and say "gedday" when somebody takes an interest. If there's a yarn to be had, I'm in. It's actually a busy spot, with lots of foot traffic. Kids often walk by on their way to and from school, people walking their dogs or pushing prams around the block, and being close to the centre of town and the train station, people sometimes walk rather than drive.

Spending time interacting with local people is very rewarding in many ways, especially in creating a sense of community - something that's often lacking, and something that we can change if we make the effort.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The house design begins, what about the $?

Principle 1: Observe and Interact:

One of the things that has stopped me from buying a house in the past is the fact that I would have needed to get into a lot of debt. A lot of debt would mean that I would have to work hard in a job that earned a pretty good income. My background is in advertising - which can generate a reasonable income if you play the game - I find the work quite challenging, not because it's particularly difficult, but because I'm often put into situations where I am promoting 'stuff' that I don't believe in. I don't want to contribute to a world of more unnecessary stuff (see video below), and I've managed to avoid it for a bit over a year now. I'm managing to get by on doing odd jobs here and there and using my skills to promote what I do believe in. I see the 'stuff' that I am producing now as a bit more necessary...

I kept most of my hard earned savings in an Ethical Investment institution. I was glad that my money was supporting projects that I believed in, so my money was working for me in 2 ways - making the world a better place by helping ethical businesses prosper, and by increasing my savings.
For many years the investment did really well... until the crash. I bought the house early on in the decline, about 10% below the markets peak, so I was fortunate to get out relatively unscathed.

I had been looking for an opportunity to use my savings, and the skills that I have developed over the years to put some of my ideas into practice. At the moment I am (relatively) young, skilled, able and have the enthusiasm to do something - who knows how long that will last? Then the house project came along...

When I first saw the property I thought 'hello, I might be able to afford that'. When nobody bid at the executors auction (deceased estate), I decided to make an offer. It was just about all the money that I had saved over the last 7 years, $50,000. I didn't expect to get it, as the land itself was valued as $72,000 and the reserve at the auction was $85,000, but the owners were keen to sell and counter offered with $55,000. We settled on $53,000. Part of the reason that I got it so cheap was that I wasn't attached to the outcome, and also, I didn't want to borrow money - I could only offer what I had access to.

How can I afford to do anything else on the house now that's I've spent all my money? It would have to be the worst house in town. But the location is pretty good, all things considered. Being a first home buyer I am eligible for the first home buyers grant. I received $10,000 from the government, which paid the stamp duty (taxes) and left some for beginning the project. Not long after that, the federal government raised the grant, and made $29,000 available to first home buyers who buy, or build, a new home in a rural location. I contacted the State Revenue Office and asked if I would be eligible for the new grant, if I decided to build, and they said 'YES'. The catch is that I would have to return the money that I had already received, and I would not have access to the new funding until after I got a 'cetificate of occupancy', meaning, the house would have to be completed. This is a bit of a problem. It means that I will have to find some money from somewhere.

Some banks offer special rates for first home buyers, but I found that they will not give 'owner-builders' these special rates, because to qualify for the rate you need to have received the first home buyers grant - which I can't get until after the house is finished. Hmm... also, If I borrow money from a bank I need to come up with regular payments to pay off the loan. How am I supposed to pay off a loan when I'm working on the house?

All of this is tailored to people who work a 'normal' 9-5 type job, who get paid and pay someone else to do the work for you. Not owner-builders. I don't see the point in earning money (paying tax), to pay somebody else (who pays tax) to do something that I would much rather do myself. I think what I need is to borrow $29,000 which I can then pay back when I get the house finished with the grant money. That should keep me going a while.

I met with Peter (the architect / builder) on site and we looked at the possiblity of moving the existing building to a new location, in order to make it solar passive, this would make the home more comfortable to live in and cheaper to run. Peter estimated that moving the house would cost $5,000. It was decided that it would be a better idea to dismantle the house and rebuild it in it's new location - on new stumps and higher, reducing the chance of the house being damaged in a flood.

In his first sketch you can see the original house reorientated and set back towards the road. The north (top) of the house would be an extension on a slab floor with a walkway to the existing bathroom (which would be renovated).

Peter thinks that the project will cost around $100,000 to build as an owner builder - I was hoping around $50,000. With the grant, some money that my partner was willing to put in and earning some money on the way, $50,000 seems possible. $100k... hmm...

There are also some other grants that I am eligible for that I am thinking about:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Site Analysis

Principle 1: Observe and Interact

A small birds nest made with spider webs in a plum tree, just outside the bedroom window.

The house site faces the road on the south west. The house itself is in poor condition. Of note the building has no insulation, the walls and ceiling lining need replacing, no windows on the north (sunny side) of the house, no gutters and the building needs restumping. The bathroom is basically an after-thought that is built onto the eastern side of the house. Also the building itself is situated right on the north-eastern boundary, so as it stands it would be very difficult to make solar passive.

Colleague and builder / architect Peter Lockyer suggested that it may be a good idea to resite and reorientate the whole building. At the same time the building could be extended to incorporate solar passive design principles, like windows on the north side of the building and thermal mass in the floor. I have worked with Peter on building sites in the past, and have become a competent labourer. With Peter's advice and support I got excited about the proposal - this, by the way, was discussed before I bought the house.

Above is a sector analysis of the property. This considers the various environmetal impacts that will affect the site.

The original carport was about to collapse, and was pulled down very early in the piece. From the deconstruction most materials have been salvaged and stacked for reuse.

The next big consideration that I needed to make was what to do about the Red Gum. While it is a beautiful and majestic tree, it's placement causes great concern. The options are:
  1. To leave it as it is - with the danger of falling branches in the future, but if left will eventually provide habitat for creatures in the hollows. Big problem here is that I would be liable for any damage fallen limbs may cause - as well as the risk to people and infrastucture on my property. The tree also shades out afternoon sun and dries the soil.
  2. To prune the tree - reducing the risk, this would need to be done by professionals and would be quite an expensive on-going cost. Would provide some timber in short lengths and smaller branches for mulching. Otherwise a similar situation as the first option.
  3. To fell the tree - a very big, expensive job. Would increase solar access and ability to grow other plants, and provide timber that could be milled, poles, branches, mulch and firewood.
I decided to get quotes on what it would cost to fell the tree. As an incentive, my 2 nearest neighbours offered me $300 each to either prune or remove the tree. The first quote I got was for $5000, leaving the main part of the tree on the ground, but taking the rest away. The second quote I got was for $2000, with the tree felled and leaving all of the material on the ground.

After considering all of the factors, including that there are many Red Gums along the creek reserve across the road, I decided to have the tree felled. This would allow me to have good solar access for a passive solar design and provide building materials.

Note: I wanted to point out that I do have a deep appreciation of the many values of old trees, and spent a week in a tree platform of a Karri in near Nannup, SW Australia, in protest to the clearfelling of old growth forest for woodchips.

Cutting branches overhanging the neighbour house in small sections.

Branches and guided by a 2nd person on the ground using ropes.

The main trunk of the being prepared for felling.

I specifically asked that they leave as long a lengths as possible, which would give me more flexibility in what the lengths could be used for. If the tree was just 'blocked down' (in small chunks) it would make it less useful than longer lengths that can be used as poles or milled up. I was surprised that it took two men only 6 hours to bring the whole tree down, without any fancy machinery. Luke and Sam made the job look easy, but one slip up could be very costly. Better to leave a job like this to the pros I think.

I also began the process of removing the lining from the interior of the building. The lining is a mish-mash of chipboard, masonite, horse-hair plaster-board and some concrete sheeting. There is also a layer of thick paper above the ceiling, which was covered in a thick layer of dust.

There is no insulation in any of the walls or ceiling, with large gaps in the weather boards.

There were thousands of stone fruit shells in the ceiling, which must have been home to rats and/or possums.

A layer of silt in the wall cavity suggests that flood waters did enter the house, but I could not see any indication of the flood level.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Evaluating the house site

Principle 1: Observe and Interact

One of the first things that I did when I purchased the property was to introduce myself to the surrounding neighbours. Having a yarn and a cup of tea with locals is a great way to find out lots of useful information whilst building up a relationship with people around you.

Being near a large river and on a flood plain, Seymour has seen its fair share of floods, mainly from the Goulburn River. This seems to be less of a problem now than it was before Lake Eildon was enlarged in the 1930's, and again in the 1950's.

Station Street Seymour from the railway line, 1916.
Photograph, Seymour Historical Society

Hubert Miller recalls "there was a case in the... ‘74 I think, in February ’74 (it was actually February '73) when there was a 10 inch deluge in the Whiteheads Creek catchment (which is a tributary of the Goulburn, runs in at Seymour), which had quite a devastating affect flooding in the town, and there was one life lost. And that was certainly a flood which had social impact, there were certain works done after that to try alleviate the situation like enlarging the waterway under the railway line, and had a lot of tiding up to do, but that’s just shows how quick a local flood can hit you, and it certainly came somewhat unexpected and in the late summer too."

Looking at the map below, you can see that there is quite a large catchment area to the north and south of Whiteheads Creek locality - this area feeds the Whiteheads Creek.

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The house site is the closest to the railway bridge at Whitehead Creek and was subdivided so that council could perform drainage works on the north western side of the block (facing Tarcombe Road). This site was later sold by council and was built on in 2000. This explains why the house is known as '74 Tarcombe Road' even though it is not on Tarcombe Road - very confusing if you are trying to find the place.

View Larger Map
The creek itself runs about 50m south of the house site.

Whiteheads Creek Landcare, founded in 1986, has been addressing the salinity problems in the catchment as well as erosion control. Tree planting, understory restoration and wildlife corridors are being established which will help reduce runoff in times of heavy rains. But rains have become less frequent, but with greater intensity in recent years which would increase the chance of flash flooding events. This is no doubt part of the effects of climate change.

The house site is about 584m2, with most of the site within and 'Urban Flood Zone'. When contact was made with council to find out if it would be possible to develop the house I was directed to the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority to find out their recommendation. The best estimate of the authority was that the property "is subject to significant depth of flooding as well as high flow velocities" for a 1 in 100-year event, it is in a "high hazard portion of the floodplain, where placement of the building is to be avoided", however the development of a dwelling in the property is unlikely to make a significant difference to the flooding situation. They recommended that any dwelling be constructed at least 300mm above ground level, which is 300mm above the previous flood level.

This is a 'Planning Property Report' which is available for free from

The site itself is relatively flat, and being on a flood plain the soil is very fertile. The native River Red Gum was planted on the North Western side of the property about 60 years ago, and is around 20-25 metres tall. They are also known as 'Widow Makers' because of their tendancy to drop branches without warning. It is common knowledge in Australia that you never camp under a Red Gum, no matter how tempting it may be. The tree should never have been planted on a suburban house block.

I have been told that a couple of branches have come down each year, but there has not yet been any damage to property. The tree leans over the neighbours house to the north west and the other neighbours garage to the north. Leaves and twigs fill the gutters and the threat of branches dropping on the buildings explain why both neighbours were very keen for the tree to be prunned or removed. The tree was marked with a big red 'X' - by one of my neighbours. As an incentive, the neighbours have offered to contribute for the costs of an arborist to do the job. I was impressed by their generous offer, as it is I that would be liable for any such work, or damage that the tree could cause.

When I enquired to find out if I needed a permit to prune or remove the tree, the councils Environmental Officer contacted me to suggest that I retain the tree as mammals often breed in the hollows of such trees. These hollows only occur in very old trees - and none exist in this tree as yet. It turns out that I don't need a permit to do such work on a residential house site.

History of the locality

Principle 1: Observe and Interact

Seymour is located 98 km north of Melbourne Australia, a part of the Murray-Darling Basin within the Goulburn Valley, north of the Great Dividing Range and is about 140 metres above sea level. It's average rainfall since records started in 1880 is 593.5mm, the trend is that it is becoming drier, the area has been in a drought for the last 8-10 years.

Prior to Euorpean settlement the region was occupied by the Natrakboolok, Ngooraialum and Thagungwurung tribes, some of whom continued to camp and hold corroborees on the townsite into the 1860's.

The first white men in the area were explorers Hume and Hovell in 1824. Major Mitchell's party passed through the area in 1836, with settlers not far behind. The overland mail route to Sydney originally followed Mitchell's path, crossing the Gouburn River at Michellstown, but later changed to the site of 'New Crossing Place' (later to become Seymour). A hotel, punt service and blacksmith began the original township in 1839. When the gold rush era took off in 1851 traffic increased on Sydney Road and so did the population. One of the states first primary schools was established in 1857 and is still in use today.

When the railway arrived in the 1872 the town became a major hub for the region, with the new town developing around the station site. An army training camp began in 1904 with the establishment of a troop of Light Horse which developed into a permanent camp during World War I. This became the cheif military area in the state that moved 10km west to Puckapunyal during WWII.

The downsizing of the railway and the moving of army divisions to the north of Australia in the 80's and 90's created a void in the town that was filled with a large influx of poor, marginalised people with little support. In 1999 the town was identified as the 10th most disadvantaged small town in NSW and Victoria.

Seymour today. Sourced from Wikipedia.

From this spang an action group called The Seymour We Want, which was formed by concerned residents who came together to create a whole community approach in initiating a vision for the town. Since then community action has helped imporved the situation substantially. Planning is currently underway about the development of a Community Garden near the hospital.

The locality now has a population of about 7,000. It is a reasonably well serviced town, with a strong sport focus and many community organisations. There are some beautiful parks along the river and some large bushland reserves that were once military bases.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

An opportunity presents itself

Buying a home can be a very scarey proposition, particularly in this economic climate. Then there is the environmental impact of climate change, which very few homes are designed to deal with, and the effects of the peak of oil supply - which we are just beginning to feel.

I've looked at a couple of places in the past, while they were affordable they were also in country locations with very poor public transport - while I was living in the city. Moving out of the city (Melbourne, Australia) was a big step, which I made about 4 years ago. That's given me the time to get to know the local area and meet local people. I've also picked up useful practical skills and created some of my own work, which generates a small income. Simple living has allowed me to reduce the amount that I need to work to earn $, so I can focus on doing things that I love instead.

I didn't want to borrow a whole heap of money to enter into the housing market, so I waited for an opportunity to come along. It came at an executors auction that nobody bid at. I offered almost all of the savings that I had and after some negotiation, my offer was eventually accepted.

House as viewed from street.

I didn't think much of the place when I first inspected it, but then I got to thinking about the 12th principle of permaculture and the proverb "vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be". The location is close to town, with great access to public transport. It's next to a creek, has laneway access and good soil. It's got lots of (neglected) fruit trees and a magnificent Red Gum. The house (if you could called it that) has power, water and sewage connected and gas available. It's small, dark , in very poor condition with no solar access as it butts up against the north east boundary. The garage and shed were about to collapse with termite and rot damage. While not very exciting as they stood, they provide a source of building materials to begin a new project.

Garage / Shed as viewed from street.

Massive Red Gum on the north-west side of the house block.

Kitchen, sink only has a cold water tap.

Living and bedroom viewed from kitchen.

Bathroom, laundry and toilet.

Across the road is Whiteheads Creek.

Also see 'street view' here.

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