In ‘Sustainable houses’ Category

container parents retreat

Storage, study, sleeping: Container convert

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Tammi Jonas is definitely a convert to container homes. Motivated by reuse and sustainability, their light-filled container conversion has also proved a joy to live in. Here she describes the conversion process.

In May 2011, we had a moving/storage/accommodation challenge. We needed to move all our material trappings from Melbourne up to our new farm near Daylesford, but store them for four months while we traipsed across America, and then accommodate our growing (vertically, not numerically) family in a small three-bedroom house on the farm. The obvious solution was a shipping container for all three jobs.


That’s how we came to buy a used high-top 40-foot (12 m x 2.4 m, 2.9 m high) container (from eBay) rather than simply hiring one to do our move. It cost us $2500, plus $500 to get it delivered to us in the suburbs and then hauled up to Daylesford.

The day the container arrived, we watched in trepidation lest the truck’s cranes broke the low wires overhead. Then we filled it up, to the top, grateful we would have an enormous shed at the other end to supplement our new little house.

Our intrepid truckie, Bluey, arrived to collect the now-heavy container, and drove it through the rain and up our slippery, narrow driveway onto the farm. I held my breath the entire time, certain there was a very expensive towing bill in our near future. But Bluey was amazing, and our life’s treasures were planted carefully in front of the shed to wait out the winter while we gallivanted off to a life-changing northern summer.

A full season later, we returned to commence our new life as farmers. Our design for the interior of the container was inspired by the RockVan (a 1977 GMC motorhome) we’d used on our holiday in the USA. The RockVan has terrarium-like windows that made us feel constantly connected to the outside world. I wanted my bed’s placement to replicate the RockVan pleasure of waking to the gentle visage of trees and sky.

I had imagined cranes and costs and the stress of working with contractors to move the container into position as our new bedroom/office with ensuite, but my partner Stuart had better ideas. All we had to buy were some pine fence posts, which we needed anyway for, well, fencing, and borrow Stuart’s folks’ 4WD.

Stuart dragged the container into place, using eight round fence posts as rollers. In total, he had to move it about 50 metres, and 90 degrees. He then jacked it up and put pad footings with brick piers under each corner.

The building commenced in earnest then, with the roof we pulled off the house’s superfluous, low carport becoming a feature on the container—and reducing the heat load on its roof.

Stuart bought double-glazed, aluminium-framed windows and doors direct from China, for both this and a second guest container. The windows in fact arrived in the soon-to-be guest container! The total cost was around $5500, including delivery, of which about $3500 was for the container.

Dealing directly with Chinese suppliers meant the windows were much cheaper, but it can be tricky, as quality can vary and the logistics require a lot of knowledge and time. However, Stuart already had 10 years experience dealing directly with Chinese companies, so for us this went smoothly.

Read the full article in ReNew 133.

Bundanoon Net Zero Cottage

Small changes, big savings: Low-cost, carbon-neutral housing

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You don’t have to spend up big to get an environmentally friendly home. Glenn and Lee Robinson show us their clean, green cottage based on common-sense principles.

Our aim was to build a home that was a lot more environmentally friendly than the average in Australia. So we did a bit of homework and found that it’s surprisingly simple and economical to build a carbon-neutral house. This article describes what we learnt, how that information was turned into a building and how the house has performed now that we’ve lived in it for 12 months.


The most important discovery was that most of the techniques for creating a high-performance house cost little more than standard building practices. There are lots of small things in a building that, when done a bit differently, add up to a big difference in comfort and energy use (see our ‘20 guidelines’ on the last page).

Finding the right design
Our goal was to minimise dependence on energy from unsustainable sources and create a comfortable, affordable home suitable for occupancy through all stages of life.

We began the design process by making a list of what did and didn’t work in all the buildings we were familiar with, listing the features we would like to incorporate. We set a performance standard of net-zero carbon emissions and a budget of just $250,000 for the complete project, including house, garage and landscaping.

We looked at the options available with local builders, project home companies, prefabs and kit homes but found nothing that came near our specifications. A few prefab companies in Victoria could meet our performance spec but freight costs pushed the price above our budget. The one ‘net-zero’ project home available fell short in the performance stakes. The options were disappointing, but, in a country with the world’s highest per capita carbon emissions, perhaps not surprising.

By default we were left with the only viable option being owner-building, which has ended up working out well. We started out by looking at the history of efficient buildings and which techniques and ideas have stood the test of time, and which haven’t. We really wanted to see if we could avoid over-complication in the design so we researched low-tech ideas that have been proven to work.

We found a lot of good ideas in the layouts of Earthship buildings. They often have excellent room arrangements for maximum sun penetration, but we weren’t fans of all their design principles as they require huge amounts of labour to construct and can overheat and leak.

An excellent resource is the website Build It Solar (, where we found the Montague Urban Homestead, winner of the Massachusetts Zero Energy Challenge. We looked far and wide at hundreds of designs and, to us, this was the most elegantly simple, high-performance, economical design. We used this as the basis of our design, but de-tuned it to match our climate and rearranged the layout to suit our needs.

Read the full article in ReNew 133.


Up to standard: Passive House in Australia

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Designing and building your house to the Passive House Standard in Australia is now a viable option. Architect Fergal White visits a certified Passive House home in Canberra to see the house in action and hear its story from owner and designer Harley Truong.

I approached Harley Truong’s Passive House in Canberra knowing that this freezing cloudy July day would be a real test of the house’s certification. Stepping inside, the building was beautifully warm, with no heating system in use. Truly impressive!


The Passive House Standard dictates (low) maximum energy usage per square metre, both overall and for heating and cooling (see box). It does this by specifying a well-insulated envelope and airtightness that is perhaps unprecedented in Australia, where the building code doesn’t stipulate any level at all.

There are now six certified Passive Houses in Australia, with many more under construction. But that wasn’t the case in 2013 when Harley Truong embarked on his own build, so he made remarkable use of the internet to find his way to successful certification.

Renovation attempt
His family’s journey to find a better way of living began with an attempt to renovate their 40-year-old home in Canberra. The house was draughty with cold floors, constant use of ducted gas heating and mould growing on the windows from condensation, all issues that were affecting the family’s health and bills. Winter bills were often as high as $600 per month.

Harley attempted to thermally improve the house but to little effect. Replacing steel-framed single glazing with double-glazed windows (non thermally broken aluminium) and adding curtains made the condensation worse. Locating a whirlybird on the roof pulled heated internal air through the 30 ceiling downlight holes into the attic. Harley says, “I slowly realised that the home was almost the perfect inverse to what a passive solar designed house should be. It had the main glazed living areas facing south, minimal insulation, high air leakage and no thermal mass.”

So when a large corner site (1020 m²) with no overshadowing came up for sale just down the road, Harley bought it almost instantly. The decision was also quickly made to knock down the poorly sited house on the block, and build two homes, one to live in, and one as an investment property.

Read the full article in ReNew 133.


Comfortably ahead – A tale of two heaters

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Turn on your air conditioner—and knock hundreds of dollars off your heating bill. Tim Forcey describes the learnings (and savings) gained from his experiment with reverse-cycle electric heating.


Over the last 20 years my wife and I have raised a family in our 100-year-old Melbourne bayside weatherboard home. Last spring, following our third partial renovation, we installed two air conditioners in preparation for the hot summers to come—particularly so my wife and I could stay comfortable when working at home.

The two air conditioners we chose did just that, easily cooling our full ground-floor living space (128 m2 consisting of seven rooms and a hallway). Based on advice from Matthew Wright (founder of, we opted for two top-of-the-line Ururu Sararas (US7s) manufactured by Daikin: one small wall-mounted unit in our front bedroom (2.5 kW rated for cooling) and one medium unit (3.5 kW) in the lounge room.

The total US7 rated cooling capacity of 6 kW contrasts with a 14 kW multi-headed unit that the salesperson said we would need. So lesson number one: avoid the up-sell if your house is reasonably well-shaded and insulated (see box for more on sizing).

Come winter, I was keen to learn how these reverse-cycle units would compare with our 20-year-old ducted gas heater in terms of health, comfort, convenience and operating cost, particularly following on from research by Beyond Zero Emissions and the ATA (ReNew’s publisher) into the potential for economic and environmental benefits from going off gas.

My findings? There were pluses and minuses when comparing the two heating methods on comfort and convenience. But when it comes to cost, the reverse-cycle air conditioners beat ducted gas hands down—not only for our home, but possibly for hundreds of thousands of homes around Australia.

Science—sort of—in the home
Starting in late June 2015 (mid-winter), I sought to heat our home on alternate days using the US7s and then ducted gas.

The US7s are heavily instrumented and can tell you the outdoor temperature, the indoor temperature, the indoor humidity and how much electrical energy they have consumed since you turned them on today, or since you installed them last year! Adding to this, I spread thermometers throughout our living areas. I also referred to our in-home electricity display that relays instantaneous electricity-use figures for our whole house from our smart electricity meter.

And for the first time in my life, often wearing a bathrobe and head torch, I journeyed out behind the bushes to the not-so-smart gas meter to diligently record gas usage.

I will not claim that this exercise was the best example of the scientific method we have seen. Variables and shortcomings had to be managed, such as failure to focus on the task-at-hand at 5.30 am before the morning coffee, Daikin’s less-than-fully-illuminating owner’s manual, and my co-occupants.

Read the full article in ReNew 133.

ReNew Editor, Robyn Deed

ReNew 132 Editorial – Not just another brick in the wall

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We’ve gone a little bit Sanctuary (our sister magazine which showcases modern green homes) this issue! Or, at least, our theme of building materials sees us concentrating a bit more on sustainable building materials and systems, and a bit less on technologies such as solar and batteries.


But we haven’t completely forgotten solar, with an article by the ATA’s energy guru Andrew Reddaway on ways to add batteries to an existing grid-interactive system, to create a hybrid system. He suggests that for many in our cities this will be a more cost-effective and sustainable approach than going off-grid, with the recently announced Tesla Powerwall setting a lower-cost and longer-warrantied battery system benchmark that we’re hoping many other providers will follow.

We also look at solar panels as a building material in our article on emerging materials. Building integrated PV promises a way of reducing construction materials, replacing roofing or even windows with solar panels, and we’re pleased to see some roofing companies taking up the challenge.

As part of our building theme, we decided to cast a ReNew eye over the many possible approaches to building walls. The array of choices can be confusing, so we’ve created a quick guide that looks at how each wall construction system works and considers sustainability across a range of criteria.

In terms of building guides, we also feature Mullum Creek, an innovative residential development in Melbourne’s east, which is providing guidelines for purchasers on both sustainable design and building materials. For example, their clay products guide lists local products and suppliers that have lower impacts than typical brick products. Each listing comes with a comment as to why it’s been included, a helpful pointer on the issues to consider in selecting materials.

We also consider longevity and sustainable design. As architect Ande Bunbury asks, shouldn’t we be designing buildings to outlast us? Getting the basics right, flexibility and durability are all important for longevity.

There’s much more besides, including a sustainable farm conversion that’s going from strength to strength, a discussion of the advantages of collaboration in building design, an update on the ever-expanding world of community energy, the results of our cooking challenge, a DIY roof heat capture system and a micro-hydro buyers guide. Alan Pears features several times: with an in-depth look at where/when thermal mass is effective, a book review and his column on the bizarre world of Australian climate policy.

We’d also love to get your views on ReNew in our reader survey, running until 31 July. It really helps us to hear what you’d like to see more (and less) of in ReNew. It only takes 10 minutes and there’s a prize of organic wine or olive oil on offer. Find it at

Robyn Deed
ReNew Editor


ATA CEO’s Report

Our mission at the Alternative Technology Association (ATA) is to enable, represent and inspire people to live sustainably in their homes and communities. We’ve been doing this for 35 years, providing independent advice and sharing stories of practical sustainability from across Australia.

We’re very excited to announce a major step forward in our work, as co-organiser of Sustainable House Day in 2015 with the EnviroShop. The ATA has been a long-time supporter of Sustainable House Day, with many ATA members opening their homes on the day, allowing the general public to see good sustainable design, ask questions and receive unbiased advice.

Sustainable House Day joins a range of events the ATA conducts each year to provide face-to-face advice on practical green living. This year we’ve already held Speed Date a Sustainability Expert events in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and there are more coming up in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne’s western suburbs.

Without the support of our members, with many actively involved in their communities sharing information on sustainable living, none of our work would be possible.

As we come to the end of the financial year you can support the ATA’s work by making a tax-deductible donation. As well as supporting Sustainable House Day, your donation will enable us to continue development of the on-grid battery component of the Sunulator solar system feasibility tool and to advocate for consumer protection and carbon reductions in a changing energy landscape.

You can make a donation online ( or by calling 03 9639 1500. With your support we can continue to enable practical action on climate change free of commercial influence.

Donna Luckman

Three options of hot water plumbing: gas-boosted solar, full gas and solar only.

Farming Renewably: Reaping the benefits

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One person/farm can make a difference: David Hamilton describes how his farm’s sustainable conversion cut carbon, benefited the landscape and turned a profit.


I’ve read many inspiring articles in ReNew from individuals trying to live more sustainably and lessen their impact on the planet. This article takes a slightly different approach–a rural perspective–to demonstrate that it can be commercially viable to run a farming enterprise using systems that are truly renewable, whether that’s for water, electricity, housing, food, livestock, pasture or wildlife.

Our journey to sustainable farming began in 1993, when my wife Roberta and I purchased a 60-acre property in the south-west of WA with the twin objectives of restoring the degraded land and becoming as self-reliant as possible. The land included pasture that was totally lifeless and neglected, along with a dam, two winter streams, old gravel pits and two areas of magnificent remnant native forest. We wanted to be independent for water, electricity and as much of our food as was practical. Withe fewer bills to pay, we could work fewer hours off the farm–which was very appealing.

As a registered nurse with no farming experience, I was on a vertical learnign curve. Luckily, Roberta has a dairy farming background and, with her accounting experience, is a wizard at making a dollar go a long way.

When we began, we were both working full-time. We spent the first two years establishing a gravity-fed water supply, preparing the hosue and shed sites, and fencing the property, including to protect remnant bush from planned livestock. We also planted over a thousand native trees and shrubs, plus a few ‘feral’ trees for their air conditioning and fire-retardant properties.

Read the full article in ReNew 132.



Emerging materials

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The world of building materials is ever-evolving, but which of the new materials will make it to market acceptance? Lance Turner looks at some of the products starting to take off now, and what’s just over the horizon.

Solar panels: the new building material?
Solar panels can take the place of some building materials, known as building integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs). For example, they may be integrated into the roof, replacing roofing sheets or tiles, they may form the roof of a carport or verandah (as on the cover of the last ReNew!) or they can even be part of a wall or balcony rail. Anywhere a surface gets a good amount of sun is an opportunity to use BIPVs.


Although BIPVs sound like a great idea, reducing costs by displacing some building materials while producing a neater, integrated look, they have struggled to gain a foothold in Australia. There are some amazing examples overseas, but the examples here are far more limited. And, unfortunately several manufacturers, such as Schott Solar, have stopped manufacturing them in recent years due to the low cost of standard panels.

However, there are still options available, mostly in the form of roof materials. The original PV Solar Tiles ( have been available for more than a decade, and roofing manufacturers are now getting in on the act, with BIPV systems available from Monier (SOLARtile, see, SolTech (not available in Australia as far as we know, see, Nulok (, Tractile ( and Stratco Solatop (

The roof is not the only place where BIPVs are being used: it’s also possible to install windows that actually generate electricity. This has the added benefit that the windows reduce the incoming energy and so help keep the building cool. The main disadvantage of a PV window is the higher cost should a breakage occur. They’ll also reduce solar gain in winter, thus reducing warmth collected passively.

So what’s currently available in the solar window arena? A few years ago there were several options, but those manufacturers have either stopped manufacturing them or have disappeared. Maybe they were a little too far ahead of the curve or the high manufacturing costs just didn’t add up.

As always though, technology advances and a new breed of lower cost dye-based solar cells are emerging that may change the way we look at windows.

Read the full article in ReNew 132.


Mass effect: The messy realities of mass

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Mass in buildings can help moderate internal temperatures, but it can also be tricky to control its effects. Alan Pears examines when and where mass works well—and when it doesn’t.

The way buildings work is very complicated. That’s why designers increasingly use computer models that simulate hourly performance over a year to try to deliver good performance. Even that has its challenges! Adding mass to a building is no exception; it can bring significant benefits—and some problems.


This article is an attempt to explore the role of mass in buildings and suggest some paths forward for building owners and designers.

First, ‘mass’ is not actually what we want. The beneficial feature of mass is that it increases the heat storage capacity of a building so that, for a given amount of heat input or loss, the change in temperature inside the building is reduced. This outcome can be achieved by using a lot of material (mass), materials with a high heat capacity per unit of mass (e.g. water can store about twice as much heat per cubic metre as concrete for the same temperature rise in the material), or by storing energy as ‘latent heat’ in what are known as phase change materials (PCMs, see more on these later).

High mass buildings tend to sit close to the 24-hour average temperature for the time of year, because it takes a lot of energy to shift the temperature of a heavy building. In much of Australia, especially when 24-hour average temperatures are 18 to 24°C, this means the building tends to be closer to a comfortable temperature more of the time.

Thick, heavy walls slow down the rate of heat transfer into or out of a building, as the ‘wave’ of heat has to work its way through the thick material. This can delay the heat flow until it cools down (or heats up) outside, reducing heating or cooling energy.

But it can have a downside. I once lived in a house with a west-facing uninsulated cavity brick bedroom wall. It would delay the heat flow from the afternoon sun until after bedtime, so I would cook at night unless the outdoor temperature had cooled enough for me to flush out the heat.

Note that mass does not provide better insulation—but under varying temperature conditions it can have a similar impact on energy use to a small amount of insulation. Confused? Let’s look at what this all means in practice.

Read the full article in ReNew 132.


Bricks, blocks and panels: What’s in a wall?

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There are many different approaches used for building the walls of a home, but which one is ideal for your build? Lance Turner takes us on a quick tour of the different systems, materials and their sustainability credentials.

For those embarking on a sustainable building project, there can be almost too much information available, making it hard to quickly compare the possible building approaches. One important decision is the wall-building system to use in your build.


To help in that evaluation process, this article provides a quick guide to the different wall-building systems and materials available. For each system, we consider how the walls are constructed, their thermal performance and sustainability. A table at the end of the article summarises each approach in terms of a range of sustainability criteria. It’s intended as a quick guide; you’ll need more information before you start your build, but we hope to give you a head start on the different systems available.

So, what is in a wall? There are many different methods of wall building, but they all fall into four broad categories—stud frame with cladding, bricks/blocks, cast/poured materials and pre-fabricated panels.

Stud frame with cladding
Probably the most common wall system used in Australia is a structural timber frame with cladding, in either a single or double timber stud system.

Single stud walls have one layer of framing—the internal cladding (such as plasterboard) is attached to the inside of the frame and the external cladding (such as weatherboard, fibre-cement or brick, as used in brick veneer, see later) is attached to the outside. Bulk insulation is fitted into the spaces between the studs of the frame, and foil insulation can be added as an additional layer around the outside of the frame, allowing for R-values up to almost R 4 with the right material combination. For example, according to the TasTimber document R-values for timber framed building elements —walls (, a 90 mm stud wall with R 1.5 batts, reflective foil layer and AAC external cladding can achieve an R-value of 3.9.

To enable even more insulation, a double stud wall can be used. Double stud walls are just like two single stud frames, built one beside the other with a small gap in between. The resulting walls can be 200 mm or more in depth, so a great deal of bulk insulation can be installed. Of course, a double stud wall costs more than a single stud wall, but its advantages may well offset the extra cost if you live in an alpine area or area with low average temperatures, such as north-west Tasmania.

For a truly thermally efficient home, thermal breaks (thin layers of insulation material) between the studs and external wall cladding should be considered, although the extra expense may not be justifiable in moderate climates where low levels of heating and cooling are required.

Read the full article in ReNew 132.


Many hands make light work

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Can a collaborative approach to building design lead to even better sustainability outcomes? Eugenie Stockmann describes a different type of development via The Green Swing.

When setting up The Green Swing in 2010 to develop a plot of land in inner-urban Perth, we wanted to create a distinctly different type of housing development—one that would be sustainable, affordable and with a great community feel. After all, we were planning to live in it ourselves!


The Green Swing is what we called our development company, a partnership of myself, my partner Helmuth and another couple, Alana and Mark Dowley. That first project, Genesis, was completed in 2012 and is now home to the four of us, alongside two other apartment homes. Pleasingly, it went on to win several industry awards.

We learnt a lot along the way; perhaps most importantly, we realised we didn’t want to let all that knowledge and experience just fade away. So it wasn’t long before we commenced our second project, The Siding, due for completion in early 2016.

Oversights and inconveniences
We also learnt that there’s always room for improvement. One area we were particularly keen to improve was the process of collaboration.

You might think that all buildings are designed and constructed via collaboration. After all, it’s very hard for one person to design and build a house completely by themselves. Even the early stages of a project involve a number of people—the client, architect or building designer, draftsperson, engineer, planner and building surveyor, just to name a few.

Yet, the experience of our first project highlighted that effective and meaningful collaboration doesn’t always come easy. With so many people involved, it perhaps comes as no surprise that problems, inconveniences and oversights often occur, resulting in head-scratching exclamations such as, “Why did they do that?” or “If only they’d asked before they did…” and “This could have been easily avoided if…”—you get the picture.

To add to the issues, people’s idea of and commitment to sustainable building design and construction can vary. The Australian Public Service (2007) described sustainability as a complex, ‘wicked’ issue, in that no-one knows what it looks like, nor how to get there. Somewhat ironically, their conclusion was that a collaborative approach is best for dealing with wicked problems!

Read the full article in ReNew 132.


SIPs in the tropics: Habitat in the clouds

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With thoughtful design, it is possible to live sustainably and comfortably in the rainforest. Paul Michna describes what his family has dubbed their ‘trapezoidal mountain habitat’, built using SIPs.

There are many challenges, but similarly many rewards, when building a home in the tropics. Humidity and condensation, cyclones, rain, site access, land clearing and cooling in a tropical climate all pose questions to be answered.


Our journey to living in the ‘jungle’ began back in 2002. We purchased this site, surrounded by World Heritage rainforest in far north Queensland, with plans to develop a home. The area was too wet for camping while building (with about 4500 mm of rain a year) so we brought in an on-site caravan for our initial weekend planning visits. In 2005 we constructed our first home, a shipping container retreat (see ReNew 95). Surviving cyclones Larry (2006) and Yasi (2010) taught us valuable lessons for construction and design in a cyclone-prone area (see ReNew 118).

This knowledge fed into the design of our trapezoidal habitat in the clouds, Studio Nimbus.

Built using structural insulated panels (SIPs), the main living area and half-length mezzanine bedroom float three metres off the ground on two rectangular concrete block pods. The pods double as cyclone shelters and usable space, with one a bedroom and the other ‘wet’ spaces: a laundry and bathroom.

The elevated main living area keeps us above the splashback of torrential rain, reduces accidental visits by things that slither, creep, bite or hop and maximises airflow beneath and within the living area. The height also permits the abundant nocturnal wildlife to transit the site undisturbed.

Building with SIPs
We chose to build the living area from a metal frame combined with steel-enclosed SIPs—being durable and termite-proof, metal suits the challenging humid rainforest conditions.

The SIPs (walls by Askin, roof by Ausdeck) comprise two layers of steel enclosing expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam insulation. The Colorbond provides a durable painted exterior and interior surface, minimising maintenance—it may need a repaint in 25 years time! Once a year we spray using a very dilute swimming-pool-type algicide on the exterior walls; the next rain then clears the walls of any potential growth. The SIPs provide insulation and sound-proofing and can span long distances unsupported.

Read the full article in ReNew 132.

Off-grid WA

Off-grid in WA

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Jai Thomas describes his parents’ journey to off-grid living.

In 1993, my parents, Sherry and Barrie Thomas, made a life-altering decision to pursue a ‘tree change’, long before that concept came into being. Finding a property in the beautiful Preston Valley of south-west Western Australia, their dream was of a future in the emerging eco-tourism industry, based around their love of the bush and of bicycles. With four children under 10, some might say it was a bold vision!


Twenty-two years after purchasing 100 acres of “rate-absorbing, unpowered, unwatered bushland”, and many ups and downs, they now look back on their journey with pride and are happy to share their story of ‘riding the trail’ to sustainable living.

The early days

Life on the Preston Valley property started in a tent at weekends. With a six-day bike shop business in town and four children in primary school, even just getting to the place one day a week was a challenge. Then, the retail slowdown of the mid-90s hit the bike business hard. With both time and finance in short supply, Sherry and Barrie decided to start small, with an owner-designed and owner-built weekender cabin.

In 1995, with a site selected, Sherry designed the 9 m x 5 m two-storey cabin with an open-plan kitchen and lounge room downstairs and loft bedroom upstairs. They used Colorbond and Hardiflex cladding on recycled jarrah stud walls, built around jarrah poles sourced from the property.

Even though the cabin was small in footprint, the one-day-a-week approach meant progress was painfully slow. Lessons were plentiful. The jarrah used in the wall frames was so hard it was virtually impossible to hammer a nail without a pre-drilled guide hole; as a result, the decision was later made to use pine frames when building the main house! They scoured all over for construction materials—from demolitions, discards after renovations and saleyards. Only rarely, given their financial situation, did my parents purchase new.

Their first stand-alone power system (SAPS), a 12-volt system featuring just three 85 W panels and 2.4 kWh of deep-cycle lead-acid batteries, almost broke the budget before the building began. Barrie, an electrician by trade, wired in 6-volt bicycle headlights, the very first LEDs of their breed, in series of two. Fitted to old sets of bicycle handlebars mounted on the walls, this gave them (characterful!) lights at night, but nothing more.

The old Honda diesel generator worked hard during construction, and after 12 long years the cabin was finally born, albeit not quite finished.

Read the full article in ReNew 131.

greeny flat

The Greeny Flat experiment

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Andy Lemann shares the principles, materials, results and lessons learnt in building a low-cost, high-efficiency home. Seven months into a one-year trial, the outcomes are promising.


For me, learning to live in harmony with the planet means learning to live without fossil fuels. Before I’m accused of gross hypocrisy, let me be the first to admit that my way of life is highly unsustainable: I drive a car, I eat food grown in faraway places, I use fossil fuels. I certainly don’t have all the answers, I’m simply attempting to take the first steps towards a fossil-fuel-free future. That is what the Greeny Flat is all about.

The Greeny Flat is a full-scale living experiment currently underway on a quiet street in Mittagong in the Southern Highlands of NSW. We’re aiming to see if it’s possible to build a small, comfortable, healthy, energy-positive, low-maintenance, fire-resistant, water-efficient, elderly-friendly infill house at an affordable price. Our two primary aims were to make it energy-positive and affordable.

For 20 years I designed and built sustainable houses in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, near the Canadian border, where the winters get down to -40 °C and the summers up to +40 °C. In that climate, attempting to come even close to net zero energy building is a huge challenge. When I returned home to the NSW Southern Highlands a couple of years ago, it occurred to me that building an energy-positive home here should be relatively easy and inexpensive.

I have since learnt that the cost of most things in Australia is much higher than in the States, so making the Greeny Flat affordable has, in fact, proved to be our biggest challenge. Meanwhile, my partner Cintia and I have lived in the house for nearly seven months, closely monitoring its energy performance, water usage, indoor air quality and comfort levels to see whether it actually meets the initial goals.

The perfect site 

The Greeny Flat is designed to meet the future needs of my aging parents who, in their infinite wisdom, had found and purchased an excellent site over 20 years ago. There’s an existing fibro cottage on the east half of the lot that they rent out, which left the west half available for us to build the Greeny Flat.

It is the perfect site for a passive solar home with a gentle slope to the north-east, nice views to the north, and existing buildings and trees to the west and south providing protection from cold winter and hot summer winds. The excellent solar access is also protected by the street to the north, which means that no neighbour can build or plant anything to block our sun in the future.

Just as importantly, this is an infill site in an already-developed area. This helps to reduce sprawl, preserve open space, agricultural land and natural habitats, maximise use of existing infrastructure, and reduce driving.

Read the full article in ReNew 130.

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Renovating with HelpX

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Allowing a steady flow of international strangers to live in your home may feel uncomfortable for some, but Katerina Gaita has had them back-to-back for almost two years. Kiara Pecenko investigates the world of HelpX.

Katerina Gaita and her husband Joel bought their home in Melbourne’s west ten years ago, complete with a rustic old Edwardian shopfront and a train carriage in the backyard. Their shared passion for sustainable living saw them plan a revamp of the property, creating a smarter, more efficient home in its place. But, while juggling paid work, a not-for-profit start-up, two small children and a renovation that forced the family into the small front section of their house, Katerina decided to search for helpers, which she found in abundance online at HelpX.



Help Exchange, or HelpX for short, is a listing service connecting host organisations and families with working travellers looking to exchange their skills and time for short-term accommodation. Katerina registered herself as a host, and within days had multiple travellers enquiring to come and stay with her. In exchange for a place to stay and food, she asked helpers for 20 hours of work a week.

“I needed help with a variety of things. I would ask them to clean the house once a week, pick my son up from swimming lessons, and sometimes cook dinner—just enough to keep me afloat.” Since registering

in January 2012, she has lost count of the number of helpers she has had come through their door. While five months of that year were taken up by intensive renovations, she has now had back-to-back HelpX helpers with her since October 2012.

Helpers joined in on the renovations: painting, laying grass, even shopping for shelves in IKEA. They helped by cleaning and restoring salvaged studs and bricks from the original house and neighbouring houses that were used for new fences and exteriors. “Most of the time all they could offer was unskilled labour. We did however have a French man here for five months, who happened to be a carpenter by trade. The family built such a strong relationship with him that he plans to return through HelpX to help finish the rest of the house.”

Over the years, HelpX has grown in both helpers and hosts, and offers travellers a wide range of work to undertake all over the world. Each position is different, with tasks from babysitting and cleaning, to fruit-picking, carpentry and working with animals. While most HelpX helpers are unskilled backpackers in their twenties, many pick up skills as they travel around working through the service. Katerina recalls helpers that had worked on building sites driving trucks, or on farms herding cattle before coming through her door.

Aside from receiving much-needed help around the house, Katerina and her family developed strong bonds with many of the helpers. In October 2012, they housed a few HelpX helpers to support them in the final part of the back-end renovations. “We had some great helpers during that time that were with us when we were moving in. It was all very exciting. It was a really important time of our lives, so they were happy to follow our progress. We will keep in touch with them.”

Find out more about HelpX at

Read the full article in ReNew 129.

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Building with hemp

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Hemp has the potential to become one of the greener building materials on the market. Kiara Pecenko visits Neil and Sandy Garrett to see how they are using hemp in their new sustainable home.

Avid travellers Neil and Sandy Garrett are currently living in a cosy shed on their six acre property in Violet Town, complete with solar panels and induction cooktop. They built the shed immediately after buying the land, packed it full of their possessions, then began to draw up plans for their dream home—and they are using hemp to build it.


Neil has built a number of houses in his time and been involved in the construction of mudbrick and strawbale houses, but was initially taken by the idea of using rammed earth for their new home. A stay in a rammed earth home in Mandurang, Victoria, prompted the couple to seek out how they could achieve a similar outcome in their build.

Their research, though, proved a little disheartening. Neil says, “Although it is a tremendous final product, rammed earth isn’t a great insulator, and required a lot of hard work to build with. I’m 69 years old!” The process of ramming the earth to make the walls is very labour-intensive, and for the retired owner-builder couple it was no longer a viable option.

Through Neil’s research, he had made contact with people who were using a hemp-lime composite to build interior and exterior walls. The practice has a European origin, developed in the 80s by builders refurbishing old French Tudor homes. Builders took the woody interior of the hemp plant (called the hurd), which was primarily considered a waste product, and combined it with a lime-based binder and water. The hemp-lime composite (now commonly called hempcrete) proved to be easy to construct with and to manipulate, strong yet flexible, breathable and environmentally friendly.

Building performance

Neil says that every quality one could want in a non-structural wall material can be found in the hemp-lime composite. Hemp hurd is a cellular material that easily traps air and holds it over a long period of time. This means it is a great insulating material, so hempcrete can achieve a rating of up to R4 for a 250 mm thick wall, depending on how much it is compressed. The material has good insulating qualities, and high thermal mass compared to other insulating materials. It is also breathable (moisture permeable) so condensation and mould won’t form. The composite is also highly alkaline, which deters both vermin and white ants.

The finished product in Neil’s build is one continuous, unbroken wall that makes up the home, meaning it has high thermal performance and good sound attenuation— which the couple found imperative. “Our block sits between a freeway bypass and a railway line, and we have the Melbourne– Sydney flight path above our heads.” They wanted to ensure that they had the peace and quiet they sought in the country.

Read the full article in ReNew 129.


Eco village home open Sustainable House Day

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Open Sunday September 14 for Sustainable House Day


Life in an eco village sounds ideal. Particularly one that holds creative writing courses, lantern-making workshops for children and art exhibitions for residents. While the Aldinga Arts Eco Village is a haven for creative types, it also benefits from sustainable design throughout, from all homes through to communal spaces.

The emphasis at Aldinga is on bringing people together. The village is committed to retaining over 40 per cent of the complex as open space for the community. Residents use permaculture principles wherever possible, including in the design of the village farm and its proposed organic food production. The private lots are orientated within 30 degrees of north to aid passive solar design, with all homes designed around village sustainability guidelines. Ongoing living costs are kept low with rainwater the main water source for all homes and many powered with solar panels.

One of the village’s newer houses is open as part of Sustainable House Day. It’s a straw bale, Colorbond and glass construction, thoughtfully designed around a courtyard, providing shelter and allowing winter sun into living areas. The straw bale creates texture, curves and embedded elements throughout the home.

Find out location details here. Make a day of it, other houses at the Aldinga Arts Eco Village are open for Sustainable House Day! Enter the keyword ‘Aldinga’ at the Sustainable House Day website.

This article was originally published in Sanctuary 28.

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Cool hinterland home open for Sustainable House Day

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Open Sunday September 14 for Sustainable House Day


This Gold Coast hinterland home is made for a large extended family to enjoy, with its lush edible and native gardens, and meandering footpaths.

Built in 2010, this house was designed by Peter McArdle of ptma Architecture. Every consideration has been given to natural heating and cooling, and increasing natural daylight inside. A north-facing corridor forms the spine of the house with high-level glazing to catch winter sun or vent summer heat. The eaves are deliberately wide to keep out the hot sun, with no air-conditioning needed throughout the home.

A tinted concrete block work wall runs right through the heart of the home, creating a visual feature and adding to the home’s thermal mass. This wall wraps around the central walk-in larder to keep the temperature stable and cool enough to store homegrown produce. The kitchen and larder is topped with a suspended concrete slab giving the house a fire resistant core, while the slab also forms a top deck for star gazing.

The house has several renewable energy systems, such as the solar electricity system, evacuated tube solar hot water system and in-slab hydronic heating. The property has a series of large rainwater tank and a sewerage treatment system that uses worms to convert household sewage into garden irrigation water.

For location details visit the Sustainable House Day website

This article was originally published in Sanctuary 28.


Be inspired! Sustainable House Day on Sunday, Sept 7 and 14

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What do a new strawbale eco-village house outside Adelaide, an 8.5-Star infill development in Geelong and a Gold Coast hinterland home with native gardens have in common?


They are just some of the outstanding sustainable homes that will be open to the public on Sustainable House Day, Sunday September 7 and 14.

You can pick up great tips and ideas about sustainable living – more than 220 homes will be open across the country, including urban, rural, retrofit, purpose-built and owner-builder properties.

If you are thinking of making your home more energy efficient, wondering what building material insulates best, interested in solar power or sustainable gardening, you’re sure to find a house that satisfies your interest.

Homeowners, sponsors and local sustainability groups will be present to share their knowledge.

ReNew’s sister magazine, Sanctuary: modern green homes, is a media partner in the event. Read Sanctuary’s preview of some of the open houses by clicking here.

Sustainable House Day


Sunday, September 7 and 14


To find a house near you, click here


Free entry or small donation




Josh’s 10 Star video series

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Gardening Australia TV presenter and sustainability expert Josh Byrne has just released the second video series about his 10 Star home, built last year in the suburb of Hilton in Perth.

ReNew featured Josh’s new house and garden in issue 125. Read the article here.


The new video series is part of the open source content on the Josh’s House website, with all the plans, fact sheets, photos and data associated with the build of Josh’s 10 Star home home available for free on the website.

The focus of this series is on the performance of his newly-built high performance home, designed using conventional building materials and construction methods that can be easily replicated by industry and the community.

Episode 13 looks at the impressive stats around the home’s thermal efficiency, electricity use, generation and water use, one year after moving in. Episode 14 looks at the garden, in particular the nature play spaces for kids, with more videos to be released over the coming weeks.

The design and technologies incorporated in Josh’s 10 Star home have resulted in a saving of around $2600 on annual utility bills. Water use has been reduced by a whopping 92% and the house is operationally carbon positive, in that it offsets more carbon than it produces.

For more information and inspiration go to

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Help for zero emissions homes

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Beyond Zero Emissions has launched a project to help householders achieve a zero emissions home.

In BZE’s Energy Freedom initiative, householders take an online pledge to achieve ‘energy freedom’ and in turn are assisted by various expert organisations within the Energy Freedom alliance.


The Alliance, a network of sustainability business such as solar installers and LED lighting retailers, provides homeowners with easy to follow information to reduce energy use at home, as well as access to discounted energy saving products.

The project engages householders to turn their homes into ‘renewable energy powerhouses’ while driving change in government policies on residential energy efficiency and renewable energy. The project puts the recommendations of BZE’s Zero Carbon Australia Buildings Plan released earlier this year into action.

“With readily available technology, some know-how and some ambition, homeowners can move to higher energy efficiency, generate electricity from their own solar energy, and achieve energy freedom.”

For more information go to