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Ecoburbia: An Experiment In Urban Living

Tim sitting in the herb beds that double as tiered seating for their community movie nights. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

When Shani Graham and Tim Darby learned about peak oil and climate change, their first instincts were to leg it to the country. ‘I was keen to stay in the city, although I couldn’t see how we could make that happen,’ recalls Shani.

After much consideration, instead of fleeing the problem, they decided to channel their energies into running sustainability business ventures in urban settings. Tim and Shani set up an environmentally friendly B&B called the Painted Fish on Hulbert Street in South Fremantle. Soon after, they purchased a property down the street, retrofitting it to incorporate solar passive principles, making it more sustainable. They then began running Living Smart courses, behaviour change programs aimed at educating people to reduce their environmental impact.

Inspired by what they’d learned on Hulbert Street, as well as by David Holmgren’s work on retrofitting the suburbs, Tim and Shani embarked on a new experiment. They decided to reconfigure an existing building to significantly increase the density without increasing the built footprint. ‘I get really frustrated whenever I see large suburban blocks being subdivided into smaller blocks, creating more overbuilt houses, more separation and isolation, and replication of seldom-used resources (such as laundries),’ says Tim. ‘Most often infill is a bitter pill that compromises the social and structural amenity as it increases density.

‘We went for the biggest block we could find and afford in the area we wanted to live in,’ explains Tim. This meant buying a 1970s Italianate house sitting on a quarter acre block in Beaconsfield, a suburb of Fremantle. ‘We turned it into a cross between an urban infill, a housing collective, a community garden and an eco demonstration/experiment,’ says Tim. It became Ecoburbia.

Tim is Ecoburbia’s main builder and designer, with Shani being the main gardener and office bod. Three rooms are rented to five ‘houselings’; long-term residents who contribute to the ongoing community. Shani points out however that Ecoburbia is not a housing co-operative. ‘It’s not a group of people who have come together, bought a property and are all working together on that kind of project – it’s our property,’ she says.

Although they don’t have many formal rules, Shani and Tim are the decision-makers when it comes to how the property is run. ‘Rental includes all bills and also things like dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, shampoo and conditioner, so that means we can control what goes down the greywater,’ Shani says. ‘I used to be a school principal, and basically this place is run like a school.’

‘There are no formal meetings or structured timetables,’ says Tim. ‘We often hang out and share time as and when we feel like it. The houselings share food, music, adventures, skills, company and resources in a way that we had hoped for. In a way it’s much more than we’d hoped for.’

People interested in moving into Ecoburbia are shown around the property, and the following day will have a chat over tea with Tim and Shani. ‘Usually we ask what are the three best and worst things about them and do the same for ourselves, which is interesting,’ says Tim. ‘For a couple of people, the tours have been a deal breaker,’ Shani says, explaining that part of living in a demonstration sustainable house means that visitors can come by to see how it functions.

Backyard with vegie beds and goat pen in left corner and one of the residential units on the right. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

‘There’s an expectation that they will allow others to come through four times a year in a tour situation; a bit like a rental inspection because everyone gets everything cleaned up and ready.’

Both parties get another 24 hours to make a decision and talk logistics. If it’s a good fit, a new houseling arrives. Ecoburbia’s current residents are Claire, who runs the front herb garden, Simon the resident mechanic, Alfeus the resident activist, Ross the cycle enthusiast and Laura, the ‘salad engineer’.

HelpX volunteers also come to stay in the house’s spare room. Pauline and Ewan have come to Ecoburbia via HelpX, with Pauline assisting Shani in the garden and office, and Ewan rendering the house and looking after the goat pen. Airbnb guests also stay occasionally, as do friends, relatives and a stream of interesting guests including David Holmgren. ‘Neil Murray, my favourite singer/songwriter, stayed for a week and did a house concert,’ says Tim. ‘That was amazing for me.

‘Apart from the tours, you’ve got your own space and can do anything you like in it,’ Tim explains. There are communal areas such as the laundry as well as a small amphitheatre where concerts and movies are shown in the summer. The communal dining room and kitchen are used a lot despite there being kitchen facilities in the rooms. ‘People hang out because we all tend to be pretty social and collectively minded,’ says Tim.

It’s not just humans who inhabit Ecoburbia. There are 12 chickens, as well as Jacko the dog and lots of bees. And then there’s Little White and Whimsy, a mother/daughter pair of Saanen goats, a common milking breed. Shani and Tim had been considering keeping goats when a Plastic Free July challenge several years ago cemented the decision. ‘You were challenged to not use any single-use plastic,’ says Shani. ‘One of the years we did it, we couldn’t get milk in anything other than plastic bottles. We were toying with the idea of having goats anyway.’

Tim describes Little White as a ‘grumpy grandma goat’, who picks on Whimsy, who in turn ‘picks on new people and kids’. Whimsy was one of a litter of six; quite an unusual occurrence with goat births. ‘You’d think mother and daughter would get along very well, but Little White feels the need to constantly point out that she’s the boss,’ says Shani.

Little White and Whimsy get pregnant on alternate years. ‘We know when they’re on heat as they will stand at the gate and just cry all day, looking onto the horizon to see if they can find a man,’ says Shani. ‘At that point we put them in the car and they go for a ‘date’ in the country, the male does his deed and we take them home again, hoping they get pregnant.’

Excess milk is made into cheese as well as shared. ‘We work with people; there are people who get milk from us,’ says Shani. ‘The goats know them quite well because we always make sure that they see them being milked. Everyone who comes for a visit gets to see that process. And we’ve planted goat fodder all the way around their pen, so it means that whenever anyone comes they know that they can pick a few bits and pieces of comfrey and wormwood and give it to the goats. As soon as the goats see someone coming they’ll come running in the hope that they will get some food. It’s a nice set-up.’

‘The goats eat all of the scraps from both the house and surrounding neighbours, as well as garden cuttings,’ explains Tim. Shani and Tim call upon their goat mentor, who they refer to as ‘goat girl’, when they need advice. One thing they’ve learned is to not blindly trust common perceptions of what you can and can’t do in terms of keeping animals. ‘Everyone tells you things like you can’t have cloven-hoofed animals in the suburbs, but none of that is actually true when you go and look at the legislation,’ says Shani. ‘I’ll always recommend people do that, to find out what the legislation actually is.’

‘The goats are an integral part of a closed-loop urban food production system and they’ve got heaps of personality,’ says Tim. ‘They’re very easy to train and pretty clever – I use clicker training with them and they learn within five minutes,’ Shani says. With lots of hands on deck, looking after the two goats is manageable, but they don’t want to extend their goat population just yet.

Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Clockwise from above left: Garden beds that are shared by all the residents of Ecoburbia; North facing side of house looking into the communal meeting space; Unit in ecoburbia; Little White the goat.

Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt
Photo by Shani Graham
Photo by Shani Graham

There’s plenty to keep Tim and Shani busy. Tim looks after the building and maintenance of Ecoburbia, writes about what’s happening at the property, teaches, gives talks and consultations, and does ‘what I am told to in the garden’. He also creates sand sculptures, with his background being in sculpture and fine arts. Shani is responsible for looking after Ecoburbia’s bookings and bookwork, as well as the garden and animals. She writes about what she’s been up to, gives talks, runs workshops and facilitates groups.

Shani also runs Living Smart courses (which she’s been doing for nearly ten years), with Tim pitching in when he has time. ‘We tend to use participants in the group that have expertise to run bits and pieces of the program,’ says Shani. ‘There’s no curriculum; there are ten topics that you have to cover but how you cover them is totally up to you. We talk to the group about what they want to learn.’

The course runs for seven weeks, with the Living Smart participants often developing good relationships with each other in this time. ‘For a lot of them who’ve been struggling along by themselves trying to convince partners or friends that [sustainability] is important, they really like meeting like-minded people,’ says Shani. Other feedback they’ve received is that the participants have made changes in their own lives and feel really proud about that.

Shani and Tim love what they do. ‘My theory is that when you’re doing what you really want to do and money is not your primary driver, then you’re retired,’ says Tim. ‘On that basis we are sort of retired. Our business model looks like three concentric circles. In the middle is us doing our sort of sustainable life – gardening, milking, making things, writing, chatting to people. The next ring is sharing – talking to people about what we do, running monthly movies on sustainability, giving away excess produce, playing music with people, helping out with stuff. The last and most peripheral ring is the sharing we get paid for.’

After all of the work they’ve put into Ecoburbia, they have no plans to leave. ‘We believe we will be able to age here,’ says Tim. ‘Shani says when we get too old to garden we can rent one of the dwellings to a gardener, then a nurse and finally an undertaker.’ Shani adds that being able to age in the one place, without having to move, is very important to them. ‘Ecoburbia has been designed so that if the garden gets a bit much we can put someone in who only pays half rent and works in the garden,’ she says. ‘If we need nursing care, same thing. One of the units is on a level so that if we needed a wheelchair, we could go and live there. So we’re really thinking this is it now.’


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