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, November 29, 2012

Making a living, doing what I love

Principle 3: Obtain a yield

Dare I say it, my background is as a Graphic Artist in the advertising industry. I never really enjoyed working for agencies, I didn't find it very rewarding and sitting at the computer all day (and sometimes all night) was depressing and exhausting. I stopped working full-time back in 1996. Freelancing at agencies ceased when my son Kai was born, over 5 years ago now, though it died off almost completely a few years before that.

Cape Range National Park on the West Coast of Australia 1997 -  Echidna in foreground and 'Tang' (Kombi) behind

Back in 1996 my original plan was to spend a year on the road and find the ideal place to live. It was over 5 years by the time I returned. I worked a couple of times at agencies to keep me going, never more than a few months, living frugally from the Kombi the rest of the time. While working at a small agency in Perth I attended a 'Old Growth Forest Rally'. I remember that it was raining heavily, but the crowd was huge. I was moved by the experience and spoke to the organisers about how I could get involved. I put together some fliers and ads for the Wilderness Society and later went to visit the Lane Forest during one of the big actions. From there I went to Wattle Forest Camp to check out what was going on there.

Lane Forest protest, near Northcliffe, West Australia 1998
Wattle Protest Tree platform 30m up in a Karri tree - about an hours walk into the bush.

I wanted to check out the tree platform deep in the forest, it was an hours walk along logging tracks before we finally arrived a this breathtaking spot. There was a support crew near the base of the tree who told us about how this area was marked for clear-felling. We saw clear felled forest on the way in, nothing left standing, just death and destruction. We were told that tree sitters were needed now, and I volunteered. I ended up spending a week 30 metres up. It was an amazing experience, and a turning point in my life.

The main actions a the camp were less peaceful. Road blocks actions to stop trucks coming in was a regular part of the camp - lock-ons, road-dragons (old cars with people 'locked' into to the earth inside) and tri-pods were used - often together. Very confrontational approaches in an attempt to change the system. Angry local mobs, police and frustrated workers. I recognised similarities from when I got involved in the Anti-uranium campaign in Darwin a year earlier. I didn't like the approach of SAYING NO to things and confronting the system, I felt that we needed to SAY YES.

My interest in intentional community as an approach to live positively grew and I got my chance to try it out immediately after my stint in the Karri tree platform. I intended to stay at Carters Road Community at Margaret River for a couple of weeks as a WWOOFer, but ended up staying a couple of years. The community embraced the ethics of permaculture: care of the earth, care of people and fair share and practiced permaculture principles. Just what I was looking for.

Compost making workshop at Carters Road Community 1998

14 years later...

Since then I've been looking for ways to use the skills that I developed in advertising to promote what I believe in. I built the Permaculture Principles website in 2008 and helped produce the first Permaculture Calendar in 2009 with David Arnold. This year I took over the co-ordination of the calendar and now handle all aspects of it's production, marketing and distribution.

The calendar embraces the same values that I do, it's a part of me. The cover photo this year was taken by Jodie Lane, co-founder of Carters Road Community, now Fair Harvest Permaculture Venue (you can even see the tank stand in the background of both photos). Income from the calendar and website supports the work that I do in developing Abdallah House, and the Permaculture Principles website. I've committed to the ethic of Fair Share by giving 10% of the net return from the calendar to Permafund, a trust set up to distribute funds to worthy permaculture activities worldwide. It's not much of an income, but it's the beginning of something bigger.

Finally I can make a living from doing what I love and contribute to the world at the same time.

The Permaculture Calendar is available from

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Part-time schooling

Principle 1 : Observe and interact

We've been interested in Home Schooling for our 5yo son Kai but have been put off by the fact that we couldn't find any support networks locally. Every parent that I've spoken to who has expressed interest in home schooling have raised the same issues.

We don't feel ready to take on full time home schooling, but don't like the idea of sending Kai off to school five days a week (he doesn't either). We are stay at home parents and are flexible and willing to help our kids learn from home. We are not interested in creating school at home, I think that they would be better off at school if we were trying to do that - rather I see this as helping our kids learn  life skills according to their needs.

A friend of ours was taking one of her children to a nearby small country school part-time last year, and was telling us how the principal was open to this. Her child went full-time at the school this year, it was right for him. On hearing this we have explored further and discovered that having a curriculum for homeschooling is no longer necessary, which was previously a big stumbling block for many parents.

In order to be able to officially be a home schooler you need to register with the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority. In the documentation it states "The VRQA will not assess the home schooling program at the point of initial registration or annually. The VRQA will not mandate a curriculum for home schooling nor will it be necessary for home schooling parents to follow a school schedule. The eight key learning areas form the broad framework for the homeschooling programs. The method of delivery will be at the discretion of parents, based on the needs of their child"
Requirements of instruction in home schooling:
It is a requirement of registration of a child for home schooling that the child must receive regular and efficient instruction that—
(a) taken as a whole, substantially addresses the following learning areas—
  1. The Arts;
  2. English;
  3. Health and Physical Education (including Sport);
  4. Languages other than English;
  5. Mathematics;
  6. Science;
  7. Studies of Society and Environment;
  8. Technology; and
(b) is consistent with the principles underlying the Act, being the principles and practice of Australian democracy, including a commitment to—
  1. elected Government;
  2. the rule of law;
  3. equal rights for all before the law;
  4. freedom of religion;
  5. freedom of speech and association;
  6. the values of openness and tolerance.
With regard to partial enrolment "Students registered for home schooling, and their parents, will be eligible to partially enrol at their neighbourhood Government school for specific activities as agreed by the school and parent." Principals have the discretion to decline enrolement where there are 'reasonable grounds' for doing so (such as class sizes).

It's interesting isn't it! So, we don't have to send our kids to school, we can teach them as we see appropriate (see above) and government schools are compelled to take on kids part-time.

Tallarook Primary School has been open to this, the other schools in our area seemed had not experienced this type of approach before, they seemed less appropriate for our needs. We thought that we would give it a go at TPS next year for a day or two a week and see how it went. We can always change if things don't go as planned.

In discussing this idea with other parents we have discovered that there is a lot of interest out there, and virtually noone knew that part-time schooling was possible. I've spoken with a number of parents about forming a local network of 'home schoolers', or as I would rather word it "home learners". Perhaps once a week we can get together at someone's place and work on a project? Fun and games ahead!

UPDATE (29/11/12): For more, check out this post by Melbourne woman Asphyxia, she's seeing a future that I do too and has been homeschooling for quite a few years.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Seymour Community Garden with Costa

Principle 11: Use edges and value the marginal

Article in the Seymour Telegraph 21st November 2012
I've had an interest in the development of the community garden in Seymour since participating in a  meeting which discussed the concept and possible locations at the community house a few years ago. While I've been supportive, I haven't been very much involved. My focus has been on building our home and gardens here.

I've watched with interest as Mark Padgett took on the project, originally as part of his Permaculture Diploma, working in collaboration with the Salvation Army. It certainly wouldn't have got as far as it has without the ongoing help of Greg, who kept the project moving when there was little interest or involvement from the wider community. While I don't know Rick, I hear that he has given the gardens a real push more recently and developed the Seymour Community Gardens website, which I was quite impressed by. Credit to the whole team, especially the volunteers who have transformed the wasteland behind the Salvos Op Shop into a beautiful space that brings local people together.

The gardens connect in well with the Salvos, with a large section dedicated to provide food for the kitchen that offers a community lunch for locals on Fridays, while another section make plots available for individuals or groups to manage themselves. The community lunches are well attended, with 50-100 people turning up each week. I see the gardens demonstrating, particularly those who rely on support from the Salvos, that you can provide for at least some of your own needs by growing food yourself. Here's an inviting way to do it.

Costa pours out a green smoothie made using green leafy vegies straight from the gardens with apple for sweetness and avocado
For those who don't know, Costa is the presenter of Gardening Australia on the ABC - and a poster boy for the permaculture movement here in Australia.  I haven't seen Costa on TV since his show on Channel 31, where (from memory) he wandered the backyard gardens of Coburg in the mid 90's - but I did watch a YouTube clip that he did recently on the ABC about Taranaki Farm.

In talking with him at the opening I was impressed by his passion in encouraging people to grow their own and his disgust of the industrial food system - bring permaculture to the people. He gave some great examples during his 45 minute presentation on making a 'green smoothie'. In his captivating 40 minute 'performance' before making the smoothie, he discussed how food is medicine and that growing your own food is the best medicine there is. Industrial food (which isn't really food), backed by the chemical industry, is making us sick with fertilisers, insecticides and GM crops, then keeping our heads just above water with pharmaceuticals.

He spoke of supermarketing. That's what supermarkets are really - super marketers. For example they have convinced many of us that paying $3 for a pumped up bag of chemically grown lettuce leaves picked days ago and sprayed with something to make them look fresh is a really good deal. But is it? You can buy a packet of organic seeds from places like Greenpatch for around the same price, that will feed you, your family and your neighbours for generations - just let a couple of the plants go to seed and spread them round. Look after them and you'll get super fresh, organic lettuce that will put a spark in your day, everyday. And it's much closer than the stupermarket, now that's convenience! Then Costa went on to make a green smoothie using lettuce along with other greens that I picked from the gardens.

Growing our own transforms us from dependant consumers to responsible producers.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Finding balance in the wind

Principle 8: Integrate rather than segregate

A family visit to the wind farm near Dalesford in Feb 2012
I've been feeling uncomfortable with the division that has been emerging in our community about the proposed Cherry Tree Wind Farm. These tactics, employed by the Australian Landscape Guardians, have been used before to divide the local community and create angst. Who wants their community divided? I don't like it, and have been looking at what the two positions have in common.

The local newspaper, the Seymour Telegraph, has been publishing letters from both sides of the debate along with regular updates of how the planning application is progressing (or not) with Council / VCAT. The paper has provided an important outlet for the local community to express their opinion, but it tends to fuel more adversity. I've contributed a couple of letters recently - picking out elements of the 'anti-wind' letters that align with the 'pro-wind' letters:
Published 7th November in the Seymour Telegraph
Lee Stephenson raises an important point when she discussed the issue of reducing our consumption of energy to help address global warming in her letter to the editor (31/10/12). It's something that we can all do as individuals that will benefit our hip pocket and our environment.
Our family manages quite comfortably using 85% less electricity than a typical home in our area. Our 1.5kW solar PV system produces over twice the energy that we consume. We've been able to do this by making better use of the sun's energy, directly and indirectly.
Plants play an important part in how we reduce our dependence on external energy sources, providing us with food, mulch, compost, fuel, shade, building materials and habitat for wildlife (including our kids) - all at our doorstep. Plants are the most efficient converters of the sun's energy.
Rather than turning to "our scientists and great thinkers" to solve the worlds problems at some point in the future we should all do something to address these issues now, using existing technology and ideas (like permaculture). We need to do this here and now or, as Lee says, "we may well be doomed".
Let's reduce our dependence on polluting fossil fuels so that finding sustainable solutions isn't so challenging.
- Richard Telford, Seymour

Published 14th November in the Seymour Telegraph
As Peter Hill points out in his letter to the editor (Telegraph, November 7) most residents in the Whiteheads Creek and Trawool Valley "are in favour of all renewable energy sources as was evidenced at the special general meeting of council". Not only that, most (if not all) councillors voiced their support for renewable energy.
Consensus in the science community along with acknowledgement from council and residents alike, accept that climate change is real and is negatively affecting our environment. It's clear that we need to replace fossil fuel energy sources with renewables, and the sooner the better.
Climate change is everyones problem, it affects us all. What are we doing in our local area to address this issue? Are we expecting that other people, somewhere else, are going to do 'something' about it? What sort of sacrifices are we expecting 'them' to make for us?
If not here, then where? If not now, then when?
- Richard Telford, Seymour
I caught up with a friend recently, who does not support the Wind Farm, who asked me if BEAM (the local environment group that I am involved with) would be interested in hearing from a member of the local Landscape Guardians. I was surprised and quite excited by the prospect, not that I expect that we will resolve the issue, just that local people are prepared to sit down and listen to each other. Perhaps we can "acknowledge the profound differences and discover the common ground", as a BEAM member suggests.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Giant geodesic sphere from scrap

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

The completed sphere made from scrap polypipe and recovered bolts
My friend Dylan spoke to me of making of making a sphere from polypipe, as a project for kids at the upcoming fete at his local primary school. He discovered the video below that explained how to do it, so we spent the day (my birthday) working on it. My best birthday yet!

We soon realised that the project was a bit beyond the abilities of a primary school student.

The key bits of information that we gleaned from this video was: using the soccer ball as a guide, the calculations for the lengths that we needed and the quantities of lengths.

A soccer ball (football) is made up of 20 hexagons and 12 polygons, all of the stitching is the same length. We called this length 'Normal' (N). The diameter of the sphere is about 5 x N. We wanted to make a 2m high sphere so N = 400mm. We needed 90 lengths of polypipe at 450mm, 25mm extra at each end to give us room to drill a hole. We wondered if we would need to include the star shapes within the polygons (P) and hexagons (H) as was done on the video clip for a large dome, so we thought that we would leave this for later. After all, the soccer ball didn't use them. We recorded the lengths of the 'stars' anyway, just in case.
N (400mm) x 90 lengths 20 hexagons and 12 polygons in a sphere on a soccer ball
6 triangles in a Hexagon, 5 in a Polygon.
H = 20 x 6 = 120. P = 12 x 5 = 60
P (400mm x 0.8696 = 348mm) x 60 lengths
H (400mm x 1.0224 = 409mm) x 120 lengths
Dylan cuts short lengths of discarded 25mm polypipe where it is kinked
A jig is set up to cut the polypipe to the correct length (N + 50mm = 400mm)
A jig is set up to drill a hole that is centred  and 25mm from the end of the pipe
Our jig for drilling the second hole of the polypipe at 400mm (N), with a coach bolt with it's top cut off to hold the pipe at one end.
Polygons and hexagons made up using the the soccer ball (football) as the guide
The construction got too complicated to work on the ground so we hung it up in a tree
The completed 'sphere', like a flat balloon without the triangle shapes for support
If we had thought about it more we would have realised that the sphere wouldn't hold it's shape without the triangle shape for support. A triangle is the most stable form, it holds its shape. So we needed to make up the stars to fill in the gaps.

We started with the hexagons, and with each one we added the sphere became more stable. It required some pressure to add 6 pieces of polypipe to a single bolt, which was fine when we were assembling the stars on the workbench. It was a much greater challenge when fixing them to the sphere. The joins needed to be on the ground so that we could stand on them, the job would be much easier with some sort of compression tool.

When calculating the length for the polygon stars I neglected to add the 50mm to our 348mm (P), so they were all too short. We continued with the H stars and found that the sphere held it's shape without the P stars, and also gave us access to the inside of the sphere. I'm sure that the sphere would be more stable with the extra support, but it's fine without it.

Six pieces of polypipe fixed together with a single bolt to make a six pointed 'star' -
Dylan fixing the first of 20 'stars' within the hexagons, each making 6 triangles that gives the sphere strength

The project took the entire day, and was quite exhausting. Great fun. We'd like to make another, using a home made tool to help compress the joins. Thinking about it we could probably use 3 pieces at twice the length (H) with a hole in the middle for the stars in the hexagons, which would make the job a bit easier. Amazing what you can make from bit's of other peoples waste, just for the fun of it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Build your own: consume less, live more

Principle 12: Creatively use and respond to change

A couple of months ago I read an article by Michael Green in The Age. It spoke of a new target of 5kWh per person per day, the "Go 5" campaign. I was horrified. We used less than half that amount of electricity for a family of four!
In the article there was a link where you could find out how much energy was typically used by a household in the same area with the same number of residents. For our household it was 18.1 kWh per day on average over a year. That's less than the target! What's the point of setting such a target if most of us have already made it?
I wrote to Michael Green of my concerns and he replied with this:
The idea is that we can bring down overall consumption by establishing a norm that's slightly less than the mean (more like the median), by shifting the really high consumers. Still, it seems such an unambitious goal...
Michael checked out this blog and was interested in writing about our project. He interviewed me over the phone for about an hour and wrote the article below which was published in The Age on the 4th of November 2012. You can see the article with links on Michael's website.


It was great to have a well written article about our project, in such a high profile newspaper. The traffic on the blog has gone through the roof since it was published. I wonder if something else will come of it?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cleaning old beer bottles for brewing

Principle 5: Use and value renewable resources and services

Bottles like this, filthy on the inside, can be cleaned with a bit of effort and good technique
I've been home brewing beer off and on for more than 20 years. It was my first venture into fermenting and making my own anything. I used to turn up regularly to parties with a crate of homebrew. It's a financially rewarding pursuit, each bottle of beer costing about 70c to make, while they retail for $5 or more. The trick is to set yourself up right.

Cleaning bottles is the least fun part of the process by far. It's the type of job that you only want to do once. To avoid going through this process more than once make sure that you rinse the bottles a couple of times to ensure that they are clean after you've used them, and stack them away in a cupboard somewhere near where you bottle your beer.

The newer 750ml screwtop bottles can be used but are of poor quality. They are made to be recycled, not reused. The glass is thin and they often break. I use them, but dislike them. My favourite bottles are the old long necks, 750ml thick glass. By using bigger bottles you don't have to clean so many and are encouraged to drink with someone else. Nothing quite like sharing a bottle of beer! The old bottles (and even the new Coopers ones) are designed for reuse and are like gold for homebrewers like myself. I've collected old bottles from the side of the road, full of mud and gunk, and taken them home with the idea that I'd clean them one day. That day has come.

Large collection of old beer bottles being filled with water and left to soak
I started by gathering all my old bottles and cleaning the dirt and labels from the outside. Kai them helped me fill all of the bottle with water to soak - at least overnight before internal cleaning.

After tipping half of the water out I add small (5mm) rough edges stones to the bottle using a funnel. I give the bottle a good shake for a minute or so and then empty the bottle through a tea strainer to retain the stones for the next bottle. I find that this gets rid of the majority of caked on gunk that has stuck to the glass.
A small hand full of rough-edged stones, about 5mm in diameter, are added to the dirty bottle half-filled with water

After shaking the stones around in the bottle for a mintue or so I drain the water out through a large tea strainer into a container so I can reuse the stones for the next bottle

I add some clean water to the bottle and give it a bit of a final clean with a good quality bottle brush
The next step is to fill the bottle about a third with clean water and use a good quality bottle brush to a bit of a scrub. Tip out the water and hold the bottle up to the light to carefully inspect it. If you wouldn't drink out of it, give it another clean.

Clean bottles are then put into a crate, by the time the crate is full (12 bottles) I've had enough, and stack them into a cupboard in the shed. The cupboard is within arms reach of my bottling bench where I refill the bottles with freshly brewed beer (more about that later).

I carefully inspect the bottle to make sure it's clean (this is the same bottle as the first photo)

Clean bottles are stacked in a cupboard in the shed ready for bottling

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