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.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

One set of bins for the entire year - can it be done?

Principle 6: Produce no waste

An unusual sight, as we are planning on putting the bins out again only once for the whole of 2011.
Typical of many houses in Australia we have two bins, a 120lt rubbish bin that is collected weekly and a 240lt recycle bin that is collected fortnightly. We can produce 6,240lt (or 3,120kg) of waste and 6,240lt (or 2,840kg) of recycling for a cost of $270 for the year. This cost is a compulsory part of our rates, so in order to get good value for money we should fill up our bins at every opportunity, right?

Many people in our neighbourhood manage to fill them up, but we don't produce anywhere near that amount of waste / recycling. I suggested to Kunie that we should keep track of how much rubbish and recycling we collect by only putting the bins out when they are full. Kunie's response was to suggest that we only put the bins out once for the whole year! I was a bit taken aback, but thought that we might just be able to do it - if we really put our minds to it.

Our 'binimum' approach has been:
  • growing our own fruit, veg and herbs
  • buying fresh produce (not canned) locally where possible
  • buying dried goods in bulk about once every three months from Melbourne
  • feeding food scraps to our wormfarm or compost bin
  • making our own bread, flour, mayonaise, yogurt, nut butter, laundry liquid, beer, cordial etc
  • using cloth nappies
  • using the library and toy library to borrow books, movies and toys rather than buying them
  • buying and donating 2nd hand goods at the local Op-Shops
  • giving and receiving food / clothes / and other stuff to local friends 
  • loaning and borrowing tools / books / videos etc to friends
  • visiting and being visitied by friends with kids to use toys we / they don't have 
  • maintaining and fixing things rather than throwing them out
  • taking apart broken gadgets and saving useful materials from them before disposal 
In addition to this we are going to:
  • carefully choose products with minimal packaging or in useful containers
  • buy more products that we really 'need' and less that we 'want'
  • reusue, compost or burn all paper and cardboard
  • creatively use 'waste' for art projects or storage systems
  • find alternatives for packaged products like dish washing liquid and toothpaste
  • grow more of our own food and preserve it in recycled containers
  • get chickens to eat premium food scraps and produce eggs for us
  • wash and reuse plastic bags 
  • find a local fresh milk source 
  • not buy the weekend 'mega' newspaper
Our small kitchen rubbish bin is about 15lt and our recycle bin is about 30lt. Based on filling a 120lt rubbish bin and 240lt recycle bin over a year we can only fill these kitchen bins once every 45 days (320ml / 640ml per day) for a family of four. This is not just from domestic kitchen use, but from the entire household. Quite a challenge.

While disposing of unwanted material is going to be an issue for us we are going to miss out on some of the great resources that you get when you buy stuff from the supermarket regularly, like newspaper (for cleaning and starting the fire), jars (for preserving) and plastic bags (for putting stuff in). Fortunately our neighbours still throw out plenty of this sort of thing, so we will be asking them to put some aside for us as we need it.

While the temptation is there, we wont be putting our rubbish into our neighbours bins just so we can reach our goal (we'd only be cheating ourselves anyway). But I think that it's okay for us to use bins elsewhere as we normally would. One of the big issues that we will be facing is when guest bring food to share, especially wine or beer, as bottles take up a huge amout of space. I think that we should deal with the waste they bring into the house, as they would deal with ours. Part of this whole process will be sharing our story to educate people along the way. We feel confident that we can do it.

We will be setting a new website up soon called that will discuss how to reduce waste / recycling and how to reuse materials creatively.
    A gasp in horror as a large piece of plastic falls out of the recycle bin during collection. Fortunately the driver got out and picked it up.

    Monday, December 20, 2010

    Okuizome - a celebration of life and food

    Principle 10: Use and value diversity

    Our youngest son, Sen, has been on breast milk for six months and has been pretty keen to explore other taste sensations - like the floor, seat harness, basically anything that he can reach. Kunie has been actively sharing her cultural heritage with our two boys, speaking to them in Japanese, preparing traditional meals and sharing some of the customs. Food is a cultural focus in Japan, much more so than in Australia, and the Okuizome ritual welcomes children to the joys of food.

    Okuizome is a traditional Japanese ceremony that has been around for about 1000 years. It was once common for babies to die before reaching the 100th day milestone, in more recent times the ritual is held at around six months. Special dishes are prepared for the baby, with the hope that he / she will always have enough food in his life. The colour theme of the food and dishes is red, which brings luck in many Asian cultures. The food that is presented on the ceremonial tray usually includes:
    • Fish, commonly the celebratory 'tai' (Snapper), which should have its head and tail still attached symbolising the strengthening of the neck.
    • Beans, representing loyalty and diligence, since the Japanese word for beans, 'mame' is a homophone for these virtues.
    • Boiled Vegetables, usually seasonal and include some 'kombu' (kelp) whose Japanese name reminds native speakers of the word 'yorokobu' (to be glad).
    • Soup, in our case 'miso'
    • Rice, the celebratory sticky rice called 'sekihan'
    • and a Smooth Pebble, presented for the baby to bite, representing the growth of strong, healthy teeth.
    While these dishes are all presented to Sen, he doesn't actually eat any of them, which seems a bit cruel. Instead we fed him some stewed cherry plums which we harvested from trees in the back yard.

    We invited people of all ages to be a part of the celebration, people who we felt would be a part of his life. About half of the 35 guests were local, as well as some from the city and others from way out bush. We even had Sen's grandparents watching on from Hiroshima via skype.

    Our interpretation of the tradition included the invitation for guests to bring a special dish of their own to contribute to the feast along with a story that could be shared with us all. Some people brought food that they grew themselves, others brought dishes from their homeland, food they enjoyed as a child, our next door neighbour brought her signature dish of sausage rolls that were snapped up before I got a taste.

    Guests arrive for the Okuizome. The hand painted paper fish banner at the top of the photo is called a 'koi nobori' (carp wind sock) that is traditionally flown on 'tango no sekku' (boys' day). It was originally given to Kunie's grandfather by a neighbour on the birth of his son (Kunie's father), over 70 years ago.

    Food laid out for the feast with the ceremonial Okuizome dishes in the foreground.

    Sen's nana holds him while he laps up the attention of local guests

    Kunie pretends to feed Sen the ceremonial food as part of the ritual while Kai investigates what else there is

    Kai, who enjoyed his Okuizome nearly three years ago, feeds his little brother for the first time

    Wednesday, December 15, 2010

    Featured in the Permaculture Diary

    The 2011 diary features stories about sustainable building, including a short story about the Abdallah House project. Other building stories include:
    At the time of writing there is still time to get one as a Chrissy present or to start off the New Year. Check out the permaculture diary for a whole year of inspiration.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    Let's grow some food

    Principle 2: Obtain a yield

    The 'wetland' area at the front of the property, now referred to as a 'basin', harvests water from rainfall allowing it to soak and store within the earth. Top soil that was put aside from earlier earthworks was mounded up to create a raised bed with the idea that water would wick up from the moist soil below, much like a wicking bed, without flooding the plants. Horse manure collected from local stables was used like mulch and spread across the raised area before planting potatoes in the bed.

    Soil mounded in front yard water harvesting basin for vegetable plantings

    Basin fills with water after heavy rains, mounded bed mulched with horse manure

    Potatoes growing on mounded bed require very little watering and are thriving

    Other food producing garden beds have been built close to the back decking, where they receive lots of attention and get plenty of sun. We planted herbs and salad greens around the Red Gum stump with mint in the centre so that it couldn't take over. It's very handy to the kitchen to ensure it gets used frequently.

    First vegie garden in the backyard, near back door to ensure it gets lots of attention

    Herb circle surrounding Red Gum tree stump

    Horse manure collected from local stables was later semi-composted before being used on the garden. Recycled feed bags were filled with the stable mix and stacked together into a pile about one metre square. This was wrapped in black plastic and left for about a week, helping decompose the contents, killing off weed seed, fly larvae and improving the smell. This method could be improved by placing the bags onto a pallet, as the earth keeps the bottom bags cool. *Thanks to Brian Bowering for his advice and support.

    Horse poo with stable wood shavings bagged up and stacked

    Manure stack wrapped up in black plastic to help heat up, killing weed seed and fly larvae

    Large pieces of Red Gum bark were broken up by smashing them on a star picket which was set into the ground. These smaller pieces could be more easily fed into a mulcher. The bark has been used in between my new vegie beds as a path. The bark will mulch the ground, hold excess moisture and eventually decompose adding valuable nutrients to the soil whilst deterring snails and slugs (hopefully).
    The old bungalow site is to become the primary vegie growing zone, because of its solar access and its proximity to the greenhouse. Soil around the perimeter of the original building has built up over the last 60 years and created a depression where the building once was. This area collects and holds water in the soil much like the basin that I built at the front of the house. The concreted entrance of the old building remains and has become a hardening off area for seedlings.
    Compost bays were built along the northern boundary fence using the foundations of the old bungalow for support. They were built using recovered corrugated iron and timber off-cuts. An old plastic tarpaulin is set up on the bays which give the flexibility to; speed up the composting process; prevent too much rain or to reduce evaporation when it's too hot.

    Red Gum bark broken up into small pieces on star picket before being fed through mulcher

    Heavy rains flood the area under the original bungalow, which was recently cleared of timber, this will become the primary vegie growing area

    Vegie beds made on old bungalow site using treated stable mix with paths covered by mulched Red Gum bark

    Compost bays built with left over building materials using foundations of original building for support 

    Monday, November 8, 2010

    Stack 'em up

    Principle 11: Use edges and value the marginal

    I've got a lot of timber left over from the deconstruction of the old house as well as other material that I had collected along my travels. It's been taking up a substantial part of the backyard and finding what I need for other building projects has been a real challenge. Time to get organised...

    Unused timber from demolition of original house stacked in backyard
    I'd collected a number of metal poles from a local demolition job that I wanted to use to build a rack to stack the timber in. The poles were of slightly different lengths, but all around two metres long. I wanted to keep the height and not bury them too far into the ground so I decided to dig to the level of clay and lay a couple of bricks to create a solid base, rather than a deep hole and use concrete. With a slight slope in the landscape I figured that I could use the longest poles up the back and the shorter ones up front without the need to cut any of the poles.
    I purchased two metal pole clamps from a rural supply store (A$30) which was fixed to the first two poles, helping to brace them. The rest of the poles were held in place using clamps while cross-beams were fixed using long 10mm thick bolts. Drilling through the poles was a challenge, so learning how to sharpen drill bits with a bench grinder is a handy skill for such a job. Further bracing was added by fixing metal tape diagonally along the back face, while the roof was braced using corrugated iron.
    Finally the rack was stacked with all like timber next to each other, making it much easier to see what I have to work with. Now the timber takes up about 3m2 along the back fence instead of half the backyard.

    Foundation holes dug out to clay layer and bricks used to create a solid base

    Metal poles clamped into position before fixing

    Rafters, battens and bracing added

    Timber rack stacked up to the brim

    Saturday, October 30, 2010

    Laneway trellis

    Principle 11: Use edges and value the marginal

    I wanted to make the most of the laneway that runs down the east side of the property. The laneway is regularly poisoned by the local council with Roundup, so using runoff water from there needs to take that into consideration. Roundup, produced by the company Monsanto, is one of the most commonly used herbicides on the market. It has falsely been claimed as 'safe' by the company, and has never been submitted for testing by the EPA.
    Thankfully, the council workers began poisoning the laneway up from my property, as they could see that I was growing plants nearby. Still, I'd prefer if they would mow the laneway instead. I spoke to the workers about maintaining the laneway around my property myself, so to avoid direct contamination. They were fine with that, so long as I kept the grass / weeds down.
    Following on from my keeping water out of the cellar post, I want to ensure that water runs away from, and not into the cellar. I experimented with some small earthworks around the cellar that diverted water to a channel in which two kiwis were planted, but found that it was too close and water seeped in through the stairwell wall.

    Small channel to divert water away from the cellar to kiwi plants nearby
    Growing vines near the cellar will help keep it cool, so I decided to build a trellis / fence along the boundary. A suggestion from my friend Brian was to use reo (reinforcing mesh) for the purpose. It acts as a barrier for unwanted traffic, is much cheaper and easier to build than a fence, gives the feeling of space and provides a great medium for vines to grow up.
    Galvanised iron poles were held vertically using clamps before being concreted into the ground. Two sheets of reo mesh (6m x 2.4m high) was screwed straight onto the poles, while a corrugated iron fence was used for the section beyond the workshop.

    Clamping the poles so that they remain vertical during the concrete pour
    Boysenberries were planted beside the workshop, which may deter intruders, followed by a sultana grapevine, a female and a male kiwi (you need both to produce fruit) and some more Boysenberries at the front of the carport. Planting vines along the laneway gives good access for maintenance and picking, while providing a tasty snack for passers by when in season.
    A trench was dug in the laneway along the boundary for the length of the trellis. It acts as a stepped swale, with small walls built along it resulting in a section needing to overflow before the water can continue. This gives any water collected the opportunity to soak in rather than run away. The trench is mounded on the laneway side to prevent any excess or contaminated water entering from the laneway.
    After some big rains water again seeped into the cellar. While pumping the water out we tested the stepped swale and found that water was seeping in through gaps in the mortar, helping identify which areas need attention.

    Corrugated iron fixed to the north end of the fence, Boysenberries planted along trellis near workshop
    Earthworks to divert water away from the cellar entrance
    Boysenberries planted in front of the cellar / tankstand, with kiwis and a grape planted along the side
    Stepped swale being tested out with water being pumped out of cellar after big rains
    Water seeping back into cellar after swales were filled, helping to identify where the problems lie

    Saturday, October 16, 2010

    Sustainable Homes Tour

    Principle 8: Integrate rather than segregate

    Peter (builder/architect) and Richard Telford (owner builder) talking to the group on the Sustainable House Tour
    One of the ideas behind the building of Abdallah House was to share the experience and inspire other people. Earlier in the year I was contacted by Cathy Koning from the Sustainable Communities Program and invited to become part of the Sustainable Home Tour, the first of its kind in the region. Of course I was delighted to be involved.
    There were three houses on the tour, Abdallah House in Seymour, a stone cottage in Tallarook Ranges, and a strawbale house in Kilmore. You can see the case study of the tour here.
    I was sent this letter in thanks for my participation in the event, with some feedback from the attendees.
    I would love to be part of other similar events in the future, and have been thinking about running tours of our own, along with workshops on 'low impact living'... sometime in the future.

    Monday, October 4, 2010

    Getting the Grant

    Principle 3: Obtain a yield
    As an owner builder I needed to get an Occupancy Permit from council before I could apply for the First Home Owners Grant. There is quite a bit of paperwork involved in this process, along with a final inspection. Of course, whenever you try to do anything a bit differently than 'the system' is designed for then you run into some interesting challenges. I didn't actually get some of the certificates required, instead I sent them letters confirming that I conformed with the standards. This is how I did it.
    Electrical Certificate of Compliance 
    supplied by Electrician

    Plumbing Certificate of Compliance
    supplied by Plumber

    Glazing Certificate of Compliance
    Letter written by glazier below, he laughed at me when I asked for a certificate, he said none exist.

    "This is to certify that the glazing of 1a Abdullah Road Seymour complies with the Australian Standard for Selection and Installation of Glass in Buildings (AS1288). All glasswork carried out by Avenel Glass and Glazing conforms to this Standard."
    Certificate or receipt for thermal insulation installation
    I supplied a letter with the following information as well as photos and receipts for the purchase of insualtion products. See the label insulation for more info from previous blog entries.

    "Insulation installation was installed by the owner and qualified builder above and beyond the current standard.
    Reflective foil is fitted to all external walls and ceiling. R2.0 polyester batts are installed in all external and internal walls (so that sections of the house can be closed off and efficiently heated). R5.0 polyester batts (2 layers of R2.5 criss-crossed over each other) are installed in the ceiling.
    DOW Styrofoam LB (20mm) insulation was installed around the foundations of the slab and all hot water pipes were lagged."
    * I forgot to include that we also fitted underfloor insulation.

    House Energy Rating Inspection Compliance Certificate:
    I wrote a letter with the following information. See previous blog entry for more info.

    "I am writing to confirm that the completed dwelling at 1a Abdallah Road in Seymour complies with all requirements listed in the Energy Assesment report that was submitted to council for building permit number 12254/09 issued 7th of May 2009."
    Termite Treatment Certificate
    I supplied a letter that Peter (builder) wrote regarding termite managment as well as a notice that I attached to the electrical meter box. See previous blog entry for more info.

    Termite Management
    Richard Telford chooses NOT to have chemicals in/around his home.
    Chemicals for termite prevention remain questionable to health safety, and are not permanent. They require intermittent further applications, and this creates problems.
    The Termite Management approach for this house is a visual inspection and physical barrier regime, as provided for in the BCA Part - Acceptable Construction Practice. A clear and permanent NOTICE identifying the termite risk and management requirement is to be placed on the completed building. This location is TBA (Building Inspector may advise).
    The Termite Management System includes:
    1. Concrete slab-on-ground- poured with aid of a vibrator to form a clear and unbroken edge of 75mm minimum (;
    2. Suspended floors- termite shielding. All stumps fitted with a durable galvanised steel Ant Cap and all timbers 400mm clearance from the ground and good natural ventilation is provided (;
    3. Primary Building Elements of timber are either reclaimed hardwood (termites are not readily attracted to old hardwood unless in direct contact with moist ground) OR T2 treated pine. (3.1.3)
    4. A regular inspection (of 6 month intervals) of all edges and stumps and plumbing intrusions is to be undertaken. The sub-floor access provides for this (area is clean and accessible).
    5. Further, the application of alkaline material to timber and areas most susceptible to attack is acknowledged in practice as a termite deterrent, and this approach is being adopted on this house (especially around the junction of the two floor systems).
    Termite Management Requirements (notice posted in meter box)

    A termite inspection of all edges, stumps and service connections must be undertaken at least once every six months. Access to under floor is located below this electrical meter box and below the kitchen window on the north side of the house. Inspection of the area under the bathroom can be accessed via the greenhouse at the north east corner of the house. It is recommended that these inspections take place on the Spring and Autumn Equinox each year (21st of March and 23rd of September). 
    Alkaline material is acknowledged as a termite deterrent and has been used in the form of a limewash paint (milk and lime) on the brickwork around the slab edge and with wood ash filled into depressions around concrete stumps under the house. This may need to be maintained from time to time.
    The wire mesh that runs around the edge of the stumped part of the building prevents biomass accumulating under the building (termite food), and also provides light and ventilation which deter termites.

    The final inspection went very well, with only a couple of minor things pointed out for me to address.  The Occupancy Permit was issued to me on the 2nd of September 2010.
    Next was to apply for the First Home Owners Grant. See the label grants for previous posts regarding this. My timing for the grant couldn't have been better. I needed to supply certified copies of receipts totaling more than the grant amount, a mission in itself, along with evidence for the laying of foundations. The contract date listed in the table below (reproduced from the SRO website) applies to the date that the foundations were laid. We timed it so that I could apply for the most generous of grants, A$36,500, which was announced not long after the Global Financial Crisis took hold. We received the full amount on 5th October 2010 (what a relief!), most of which will be used to pay off our loan. I'd like to use some to install a header tank stand and perhaps get a solar PV system installed.

    Contract Date (1 July 2009 - 30 September 2009)

    Conditions First Home Owner Grant (FHOG) New First Home Owner Boost First Home Bonus First Home Owner Regional Bonus Total
    Established homes only $7,000 $7,000 $2,000* $0.00 $16,000
    Newly constructed homes in Metropolitan Victoria only $7,000 $14,000 $11,000* $0.00 $32,000
    Newly constructed homes in Regional Victoria only $7,000 $14,000 $11,000* $4,500* $36,500
    *For contracts entered into between 1 July 2009 to 30 June 2010, the value of the property must not exceed $600,000.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010

    Creating space

    Principle 11: Use edges and value the marginal

    If you have stuff, then you need places to put it. When we moved into the house a few months ago everything lived on the floor, or in boxes stacked up on top of each other. Having used up the money that we borrowed from our local Credit Union we have needed to be innovative with the materials that we have.
    Since the house is small (about 100m2 floorspace) we have attempted to make maximum use of vertical space, using as little floorspace as possible. Getting organised has been very important, everything has it's place - even though it all looks a bit chaotic, there is an order to it. As there is always lots to do around the house, projects get prioritised according to need (the squeaky wheel gets oiled first).
    In demonstrating this principle I have used edge spaces (corners, walls and recesses) and 'marginal' materials to produce benches and shelves. All of the materials used in this project were either found or left over from the building / deconstruction process.

    Section of flooring recovered from local demolition being cleaned up for use as a laundry bench
    Laundry bench in place and loaded up, pretty well unchanged since we moved in
    Sanding back hardwood rafters and studs from original building to use for shelving, offcuts used for firewood
    The edges were sanded back by hand and surface painted with bio-priming oil
    Bench and shelving underneath in laundry / hallway
    Built in wardrobe with three shelves fitted in bedroom two, galvanised pipe used for hanging clothes
    Built in wardrobe in bedroom two filled up to the top
    Two shelves fitted to bedroom one wardrobe, with enough room for plastic boxes which can be used like drawers
    Shelving made from hardwood studs recycled from old house, old ladder used for support
    Shelving in bedroom one

    Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    Keeping water out of the cellar

    Principle 12: Creatively use and respond to change

    The wettest Autumn in over 20 years has demanded some immediate attention to some unfinished projects. I have built a cover for the entranceway of the cellar which sheds the rain away from the stairwell. The cover has been built with materials recovered from the original house, and left over materials from the construction of the new house. No new materials were purchased for this job.
    With the ground sodden, water has been weeping through small gaps in the mortar in the walls, and the cellar has needed the water to be pumped out regularly. A heavy duty electric pump, that was kindly donated to me by my plumber, was installed and pumps water out to the laneway. The hose can be moved around to direct water to plants if needed.
    Along the edge of the stairwell I have built up soil with a slope that diverts water into the laneway. I planted a male and female kiwi along the boundry which will eventually grow up the (yet to be built) fence and shade the cellar from the morning sun, while drawing moisture from the soil and providing yummy fruit.
    When the ground dries out I plan to fill all gaps in the mortar and paint the walls inside the cellar with polyurethane paint left over from the polishing the slab floor. Hopefully this will reduce the weepage.

    Cellar / Tank Stand entrance cover. Cellar bilge pump outlet pipe runs along the right hand side and out to the laneway. Male and female kiwi vines planted along boundary of property.
    Cellar / Tank Stand entrance cover. Door made from corrugated iron with a pole used to hold it open.
    Side detail showing frame made from hardwood studs recovered from original house, with roof battens along the sides. 6mm mesh used to prevent materials being blown into the stairwell.
    Waterlogged soil surrounding the cellar weeping through walls.
    Bilge pump used to remove water from within the cellar. Air intake (400mm) for the cool cupboard to the right.

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