House Profile: Abdallah House

abdallah-house
Photo by Richard Telford
abdallah-house
Photo by Richard Telford

Clockwise from above: Grapevine growing up to proivde shade in summer; Richard and Kunie with sons, Kai and Sen; Crazy paving.

abdallah-house
Photo by Erika Hildegard

The Abdallah House project began in May 2008 in suburban Seymour, central Victoria, with the purchase of a three-roomed bungalow, with bathroom/ laundry tacked onto the side, on a 584 m2 block. The project is driven by permaculture practitioner Richard Telford with support from his partner Kunie, and children Kai and Sen.

In mid-2005 I decided on a tree change, and moved to Common ground Co operative, a small intentional social change community in Seymour. While I liked the idea of building a place at the community, there were downsides, for example if we wanted to leave our home in future, we couldn’t reinvest that energy into a new home.

In May 2008, in the midst of the global financial crisis, I attended the auction of a deceased estate, curious to find out how much ’the worst house in Seymour’ would sell for. The place was passed in with no bids. As I was about the leave the property I thought to myself, ‘Why not just offer them what I have in savings?’. I made an offer and, after negotiation, agreed on a purchase price of $53 000. We now owned a place of our own: a derelict shack on a small piece of river flat.

I already had some building experience from my time at Commonground. Together with time spent working on a couple of sites, with builder/architect Peter Lockyer, this gave me the confidence to become an owner-builder, with Peter as my mentor.

My grand vision was to demonstrate how one could live a rich urban life without it costing the earth.

We spent the first year designing and working through the necessary paperwork for council. My immediate neighbours were keen for a huge redgum (which dropped the occasional large branch) to go, and contributed some of the funds for the task. We got much needed sunlight for future plantings, and timber to build the decks and benchtops. Timber was stacked and dried on site, with the added benefit of providing mulch, sawdust and a four-year supply of firewood.

We planned to reorient and restump the original building, and then extend a living space to the north. The shack had no gutters and water had pooled under it, rotting out the stumps, compromising the integrity of the building. That, and the old termite nest in the base of the redgum, led to a change of plan: we carefully deconstructed and repurposed almost all of the materials and started the building from scratch.

No Money, No Job – How Do We Pay For This?

I knew money was going to be a challenge. I decided to record the whole process on a blog, and used this as the basis for a diploma in permaculture, which entitled me to Austudy payments.

I figured on a $50 000 budget, but Peter told me to double it. My local credit union manager offered a bridging loan, to allow me to withdraw up to $100 000, $10 000 at a time. The property provided the collateral, and we got the loan.

We turned the first sod in May 2009. A few months later we found out that Kunie was pregnant with our second child, and wanted the homebirth in the new house: the pressure was on. I’d intended the building to take about a year, and we managed to get the house to lockup stage in seven months. We moved in in June 2010, and Sen was born just two weeks later, on winter solstice.

As we had a new house in a country location we took advantage of the generous first-home owner’s grant on offer at the time: the $36 500 paid a big chunk o§ our debt. Kunie’s initial apprehension of moving into Seymour soon vanished, and she contributed her savings to the project. With our frugally hedonistic lifestyle, and with what we considered very generous ongoing government family payments, we had our debt paid off within three years.

abdallah-house
The north-facing living room. Photo by Erika Hildegard

Building Materials

The house deconstruction yielded: weatherboards, hardwood framing, Baltic pine floorboards, cement sheeting, roof tiles and louvre windows; another deconstruction nearby provided green corrugated iron and batten timber. I needed extra floorboards, hardwood joists and bearers for the sub-floor, and doors and windows which we acquired secondhand, or were given by friends; I got new when I couldn’t scrounge.

I collected and cleaned about 2800 bricks from a neighbour’s property, which we used to build formwork for a raised slab that was poured over compacted local sand and polished for the living room floor. The slab sides were insulated and covered with lime-washed cement sheet. The slab provides the only thermal mass in the house, in the area it’s needed most; the rest of the house is on stumps. Building o§ the ground gave more security against the threat of extreme floods. The remaining bricks were used to build: a circular cellar, a base for the carport (on the east side of the house), a pond and greenhouse floor.

The roof and walls were made with mostly new materials. We built curved, boxed roof-beams on site (by bending plantation pine, with noggins in between, and plywood glued and nailed to the sides); light and easy for two people to handle. New corrugated iron was fixed to the top and bottom, as roof and ceiling, with two layers of R2.5 polyester batts (recycled), using foil and an air gap above. The walls were made with corrugated iron on the outside, an air gap with foil, and R2.0 batts in a pine frame with plywood on the inside. New pine boards were used for the skirting and cornices.

The hallway wall, running the length of the house, was lined with original weatherboards, flipped and sanded to reveal the grain. The floors and walls were painted with the same citrus-based bio-varnish, adding a feeling of warmth to the place; a nice contrast to the metal ceiling and polished concrete floor in the living room.

The redgum features in and around the house: several bush poles are used around the carport, another at the front entry, and large pieces form entrance steps; varnished rounds punch out from the wall and ceiling for light and fan fittings; slabs adorn the kitchen benchtop (on a factory-made cupboard base) and a bathroom bench.

Hardwood framing timber has been used to build shelves throughout, taking advantage of the high ceiling.

Cellar And Cool Cupboard

The most unusual feature is a combined tank stand/cellar/ cool cupboard. An 8000 litre rainwater tank above the brick cellar helps keep it cool, for storing bulk and preserved food, and drinks. Inspired by the cool cupboard at Melliodora (see Pip issue 6), a 300 mm diameter pipe follows a slight incline for 10 m to the kitchen cool cupboard. Cool cellar air is drawn up from 1.4 m below ground, through the pipe to wire baskets in the cupboard where it is exhausted through a 1.6 m high black flue, with a whirly bird atop. During winter the underground pipe is closed o§, and a vent is opened under the house to draw in colder air.

abdallah-house
The cellar entry.

Energy And Water Storage/Use, And Nutrient Cycling

Our aim was to consume minimal energy. The house is orientated to face north, allowing the sun to warm up the insulated slab in the living room during winter, and limit unwanted sun penetration in the summer. Reinforcing steel curves down from the eaves over the northern deck, where grape vines provide shade in summer. The vines are irrigated with greywater from the kitchen (via subterranean chambers that can be redirected to sewer).

Our 1.5 kW solar system generates, on average, around 6 kWh per day, and we use around 3.5 kWh. We got the premium feed-in tariff, returning $600–800 a year, with no bills! One reason for our low usage is our super-efficient fridge: an upright freezer with digital temperature controller added, that can be programmed to turn on/off and used like a fridge.

Our locally made Gourmet wood-fired oven is the main heating and cooking for about four months each year – around two cubic metres of wood is sourced mainly locally. A wetback thermosiphons to a heat exchanger, heating water in the cylinder which is connected to two «at plate solar panels above the greenhouse. The system requires no pumps or power backup. Only occasionally (e.g. in overcast weather), do we have lukewarm water.

Two locally-made corrugated iron tanks hold 32 000 litres of rainwater, used for the household, pond, a garden bath (to which we add liquid manures and compost teas) and hand watering. Most of the garden is irrigated using town water. Laneway runoff is directed to a large filtration basin in our front yard, which overflows to irrigate a raised bed on the nature strip.

We open the bathroom up to the adjacent greenhouse as needed, to heat or cool the eastern side of the house. From the bathroom we monitor seedlings and other plants.

The inside toilet has a hatch that opens up into the greenhouse, allowing easy removal of the twenty litre humanure buckets (Jenkins’ system). Bays are located nearby to compost the mix (six–twelve months), before use around the garden.

We have a netted orchard/straw yard with chooks to help turn our unwanted biomass into rich compost. I compost material from the yard with wood ash and humanure.

Food production in 2013 and 2016 was around 275 kg of vegetables. Fruit varieties and production increased from 90 to 163kg as more trees started producing, and egg production also increased from 509 to 782 with more hens. Our ‘binimum’ mission – for minimising rubbish and recycling – in 2011 and 2016 resulted in one 240 litre bin of recycling, and one 120 litre bin of rubbish for both years.

Our place is an example of an ‘extreme retrofit’, which has repurposed onsite materials to maximise beneficial outcomes. A record of the building process is available on the blog at www.abdallahhouse.com, and we open the property for tours on Permaculture Day and by private arrangement. Aspects of the project are included as a case study in David Holmgren’s upcoming book RetroSuburbia: a Downshifters Guide to a Resilient Future (see www.retrosuburbia.com).

Richard Telford is the designer of the permaculture principles icons, founder of permacultureprinciples.com and coordinator of the permaculture calendar since 2012. He also coordinates the wholesale permaculture bookstore at www.melliodora.com. Contact: richard@permacultureprinciples.com

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