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Earth & Straw: Building From Nature

The entrance to the greenhouse.

It was 13 years coming, but couple Mara and Ralph have created a sustainable, efficient and loving home that was well and truly worth the wait.

I was singing Italian folks songs at the Boite Singers’ Festival when my partner Ralf asked for a second time ‘can we move to the country?’ Thirteen years earlier he’d made the same proposal but I wasn’t ready. On this occasion however, I craved change and the timing was perfect. So by the end of the festival weekend we had found a completely bare 15-acre grazing paddock just a 10-minute drive from the gorgeous town of Daylesford in Victoria’s Central Highlands.

It was a flat block with a very gentle slope to the west, boasting beautiful views of the Great Dividing Range, rich chocolate volcanic soil and adequate rainfall. Its treeless state meant we could revegetate to our heart’s content. It is on this site that our permaculture farm Orto began and where I host my cooking school Village Dreaming.

Piazza Design

We had just returned from visiting 300-year-old farming properties in Germany when our first design discussions started to take place. We observed that German farmhouses and outbuildings were placed in semi- or full-circle layouts, which not only offered residents greater protection from the elements, but reduced the distance required to walk between farm activities. We adopted this idea at Orto by clustering the farmhouse, farm stay and farm shed in a horse-shoe shape to both protect us from prevailing winds and to seamlessly link our on-farm activities.

Light Earth

Ralf and I had always wanted to build a straw-bale home because its thermal performance exceeds conventional construction. As we delved a little deeper, Ralf came across a method called ‘light earth’ which piqued our interest because as well as excellent thermal properties, it offers far more flexibility to a build.

Like straw bale, light earth uses straw as its core ingredient, however instead of using the bale in its formed shape, the bales are torn apart. A mixture called slip is made by mixing water and clay-rich soil to a batterlike consistency, before it is mixed through the straw to coat it, acting like a glue to stick the fibres together. The slip straw is then pressed into formwork around a conventional stud frame before the formwork is removed and the walls allowed to dry completely.

We used clay render on the internal walls, lime render on the external walls and we constructed a large verandah to the south, east and west to protect the building envelope. Unlike straw bale, light earth gives you the freedom to build the walls to your desired thickness (up to 300 mm is recommended), you don’t need to use tension wires to compress bales, there’s no need to cut and re-tie bales when they are too long and its thermal performance is excellent.

With its large and practical layout, the kitchen is the heart of the property

Passive Solar

After reading so many articles about passive-solar homes, it’s easy to become dismissive of phrases like ‘north facing’ and ‘thermal mass’. These words can begin to lose their meaning, but I can assure you that you will never tire of the extraordinary comfort these design principles bring. No amount of fancy tiles or designer kitchens can ever make up for how nurtured you feel when you live in a passive-solar home.

Our kitchen, dining, lounge room and bathroom all face north, which means beautiful light all year round in the rooms where we hang out most. This negates the need for us to turn on lights during the day and also helps to warm our house. The largest windows are placed in these rooms with much smaller windows installed in the south-facing areas.

I chose to place the bathroom to the north and our study to the south because I wanted the bathroom to be warm and bright. And while I needed the study to be well lit, not to the point where the light competed with my computer screen. The study is adjacent to our wood heater, too, so it’s also warm.

We chose double-glazed, tilt-and-turn casement windows and we have completely fallen in love with the system. It doesn’t rely on keys to lock the windows and allows you to open them in two different ways using the handle. Turn the handle once and the window opens as a normal casement window, but turn the handle twice and the window tilts inwards at the top, offering secure ventilation. We tilt the window when we go out and want to let a breeze in, and we open both sides of the casement wide when the cool front arrives at the end of a hot summer’s day.

The floor and walls are where most of our thermal mass lies in terms of the concrete floor and clay-rendered walls. If you haven’t lived in a house with a high volume of thermal mass it can be hard to appreciate how truly important this one single feature is, and yet it is key to creating a really comfortable home. The mass stabilises the temperature because it takes enormous effort to heat it and cool it, therefore regardless of how hot or cold it is outside, the mass ensures a steady temperature is retained inside the house.

Ideally, instead of concrete, we would have created an earth floor using soil from our property. This would have been a great achievement and something to be proud of due to the environmental cost of concrete, yet it was something we felt we could not take on.


One of the best features of our home is our north-facing greenhouse, which runs parallel to the bathroom and lounge room. Unlike the kitchen, where I am always moving about, both the bathroom and lounge are used for passive activities, so I wanted these areas to get an extra layer of thermal support. The greenhouse has a concrete-slab floor, three raised garden beds and steel shelving above the beds.

The greenhouse creates a pocket of still air against the house, therefore reducing the cooling-down effects of winter’s wind. It’s fully glazed, which allows all of summer’s sun into the room and onto the slab floor where it is captured, stored and released back into the space. Inside, I grow vegetables and frost-sensitive plants such as lemongrass, turmeric, babaco, limes and avocados all year round. I use it for propagating cuttings and sprouting seeds, and it’s the perfect place for drying laundry no matter what the weather is like outside. If on a sunny winter’s day my body needs that slightly moist, deep heat that only summer can provide, then I step into the greenhouse and soak the heat in.

Clockwise from left With a concrete-slab floor, even the greenhouse benefits from thermal mass; Tilt-and-turn casement windows aid bathroom ventilation; From a bare paddock to this in five years.


The other wonderful room in our home is our larder. Every time I step into it I want to thank our permaculture designer Vasko Drogriski for making it the size he did. It is about four by three metres and decked with shelving stocked with all sorts of gastronomic delights; quince paste, fermented black garlic, krauts, pickled lemons, pickled gherkins, zucchini relish, jams, jellies, fruit leathers and homemade dried pasta, just to name a few.

On the ground is a large grate, where cool air from under the house is drawn in by an extractor fan above. A 30-metre concrete pipe running to a depth of 50 cm below the house from the east draws winter air in and keeps the larder between 10–15 ºC, while the kitchen adjacent to it is a toasty 21 ºC. In summer, warm air enters the tunnel and is cooled down during its voyage under the house before exiting as cool air. The larder really brings delight to all who visit.

Kitchen And Bee Garden

Our home connects with the surrounding garden, offering us a full view of the changing seasons and we positioned the windows to maximise that connection. From the lounge, bathroom, dining and kitchen we have a direct view of Orto One, our kitchen garden. Orto One has two large triangular beds which provide ample space for growing as many vegetables as our hearts desire, with plenty of room to allow plants to go to seed without needing to rip them out prematurely to make room for the next crop. To the south, there are smaller windows with a view to our bee garden, where a range of perennials such as eryngiums, flowering alliums, agastache, penstemons, salvias and echinaceas grow.

Hot Water And Electricity

Our evacuated-tubes solar system, combined with our wood stove which has a water jacket, provides most of our hot water needs. Once a month in winter, we turn on the electric back-up system to increase the water temperature for showers (we use our bidet every day) and if I need more hot water to wash pots and pans (the dishwasher does the rest), I use the kettle.

Heating water using a kettle is far less energy intensive than using our electric booster which is designed to heat a very large volume of water. We have a four-kilowatt solar electricity system which, during the summer months, produces far more electricity than we use. In winter we draw from the grid.

The wetland has been designed to both fill up and dry out to mimic nature.

Creating Wetlands

Our very first project at Orto was our wetland. After working in wetland and aquatic-plant restoration, Ralf and I developed a deep love for the habitat value wetlands provide. We removed tonnes of topsoil from the designated site and stockpiled it for later use in the vegetable garden.

Unlike a conventional dam, the wetland is designed with a gentle gradient around its circumference because if it’s steep like a dam, you can’t plant around the edges. A gentle descent also creates a larger edge where plants can thrive, creating a dynamic and beautiful habitat for invertebrates, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish. It is now in its fifth year and well established. It is lush green and flowers in mid-summer, turning purple, copper and orange in autumn.

Planting Trees

On the property boundary we have planted over 1000 native trees, banksias, callistemons, eucalypts and acacias, while in the paddock we have oaks, chestnuts, hazelnuts and walnuts. Our next project is to establish a native grassland and a wildflower meadow.

Six-and-a-half years ago, Ralf and I started with a bare 15-acre property. Since then, we’ve built a sustainable home, farm stay and sheds, we’ve created a thriving kitchen garden, established two orchards of fruit trees, a berry orchard, a habitat wetland and a grassland garden. We really love living here and I wake up each day with a real feeling of excitement about the day’s work ahead.

This article represents the permaculture principle INTEGRATE RATHER THAN SEGREGATE.


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