Home with heart

Featuring an effective passive solar design, salvaged and recycled materials, and an innovative whole-block water harvesting system, this little owner-built home provides a comfortable base for a young Canberra family.

When Shelley Dickerson was growing up, her family had an old 1970s caravan with a daybed in the kitchen. “It was the most sought-after spot in the caravan,” she remembers. So when it came to designing her own home with partner Luke, it was the first feature they wanted. Covered in a repurposed Turkish kilim rug, the daybed divides the living room and the kitchen in the family’s cosy Canberra home. “You can see all the goings-on in the house from here; it’s the heart of the place,” Shelley says.

If the daybed is the heart, the handcrafted, recycled materials form the soul of the home. The design was kept simple so that Luke, a carpenter, could build it by himself in his spare time and most of the joinery is recycled hardwood left over from his other projects. Other materials were salvaged, for environmental and money-saving reasons. It does come with a time cost, but Luke loves the process of recycling things, and says he gets great satisfaction from reusing materials. “The feeling you get at the end of the day is just so worth it.”

The couple took advantage of an ACT government ‘land rent’ system to make building their own house possible financially. “You lease the block for 99 years, meaning that you only need to borrow enough to build the house,” says Shelley. “For us, it was a good way to live in a beautiful spot – in Canberra’s inner west, in the foothills of the Brindabellas – without a huge mortgage.”

The two-storey house has three bedrooms and a studio, plus a split-level kitchen, dining and living area. It’s aligned so that all main rooms have a north window, and a big deck provides a good connection to the garden. Double glazing, good cross ventilation, a concrete slab for thermal mass, a heat pump for hot water and 3 kW of solar PV all assist with the all-electric house’s thermal performance and energy efficiency.

Luke and Shelley moved into the finished house with their two small children in December 2015. “It’s been the most satisfying experience, the whole thing. With its extremes of temperature, Canberra is a great place for a passive solar house – it’s just so effective. Having a house that copes well with very hot and very cold just changes your life.”

Whole-block water harvesting

Shelley and Luke’s “big splurge” on their house was the installation of a whole-block water harvesting system, designed by horticulturalist Tim Edmondson of Get Growing. “The important factors for plant growth are moisture, light and temperature; in Canberra, just as the temperature is coming up after winter, the available moisture starts to decline,” explains Tim. “This system ensures that during the optimum growing season, groundwater is freely available to plants.”

The system consists of 95 lineal metres of aquifers dug into the ground: these are trenches lined with a water-impermeable bentonite liner and filled with washed river sand. “When the sand is wet, it will hold a third of its volume in water,” says Tim. Rainwater runs from the roof into the aquifers, which can store around 2,850 litres; it then travels via capillary action into the soil and is taken up by the plants, much like a giant wicking bed.

Tim notes that the water harvesting system mimics apparently dry creek beds in the Australian bush. “Often you can’t see the water, but it’s there under the surface, moving through the sand and gravel layer and nourishing the trees.”

The system extends the watering period after rain by getting the water straight underground and storing it in the zone where plants can use it; the block’s stormwater outflow is also greatly reduced. In addition, part of the roof drains into a rainwater tank, which can be emptied into the aquifer system in low-rainfall periods.

Their water harvesting system cost around $9,500 and removes most of the need for human management, a boon for Shelley and Luke who describe themselves as hopeless gardeners

 

Water system details

Featuring an effective passive solar design, plenty of salvaged and recycled materials, and an innovative whole-block water harvesting system, this little owner-built home provides a comfortable base for a young Canberra family. The two-storey house has three bedrooms and a studio, plus a split-level kitchen, dining and living area. It’s aligned so that all main rooms have a north window, and a big deck provides a good connection to the garden. Double glazing, good cross ventilation, a concrete slab for thermal mass, a heat pump for hot water and 3kW of solar PV all assist with the all-electric house’s thermal performance and energy efficiency.

The water harvesting system consists of 95 metres of aquifers dug into the ground: trenches lined with a water-impermeable bentonite liner and filled with washed river sand. “When the sand is wet, it will hold a third of its volume in water,” says Tim. Rainwater runs from the roof into the aquifers, which can store around 2,850 litres; it then travels via capillary action into the soil and is taken up by the plants, much like a giant wicking bed.

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