Grapevines hanging from the ceiling, trees growing inside, passionfruit within an arm’s reach of the bed – Anneke van Tholen’s greenhouse home takes the term living with nature literally.
Anneke lives on a five acre block in the beautiful Bega Valley in NSW. What stands out most when you enter her home aren’t her abstract paintings, hung from every wall. It’s not the open, spacious design that exudes rustic charm, nor is it the recycled steps leading up to her artist’s studio. It’s the large and bountiful greenhouse that runs the length of the building.
Unlike most greenhouses, Anneke’s is part of her living space. There is no wall or window or barrier between the two; the greenhouse is part of the inside of her home, and it is this that makes it remarkable. What is also remarkable is that it cost less than $60,000 to build, she has no debt, it was built in six months by her and her family, and aside from the slab nearly all of the materials are recycled.
Anneke is an architect and this gives her a great insight into sustainable practices to use in the building of a house. What she sees as one of the most important is working collaboratively with others.
One of Anneke’s first memories in Australia, after moving from Holland as a child with her family after WWII, was how the Italian migrants worked together to achieve things. ‘We’ve lost that and most people think they have to do their own thing, which is harder’ she says. Anneke suggests that more give and take is needed in communities, and that this is especially important now that buying or building a house can be so expensive that it puts people in long-term debt and locks them into jobs they hate.
After some searching and effort Anneke’s family bought the land, and got approval for dual occupancy, she lives in one house, and her daughter and her family live in the other.
‘The key to building an affordable house is to get your owner-builder certificate, have a good carpenter and someone with knowledge who can oversee the running of the project. After that you just need lots of dogsbodies – people who can just labour away. It’s a great learning experience for those who work on such projects’, states Anneke.
‘Cooperative building doesn’t have to be a family project: you can work with friends or neighbours. If you all help out on each others’ places it evens out in the end. But you have to allow yourself to get into debt to other people, and then repay that debt.’
‘The trick is not to plan your house and then try to find building materials to match – source your materials and then build the house around them’, explains Anneke. Her house was designed to fit with the materials she had. She began collecting materials eighteen months prior to building and stored the materials on site and in a nearby shed.
Except for the slab, most materials (including Oregon beams and large posts) came from a local recycling business with which Anneke has an ongoing relationship in her architecture practice. All the windows were sourced from an old pub; they were cheap – around $10 each – because she took the whole lot of them and then built them into the design.
The size of the building was determined by the structural timbers that she had found. The main beam was nine metres long, so that was how long the house was. The joists were five metres long and there were thirteen of them, so that defined the width. Together with keenness to recycle and financial constraint, passive solar concepts led to a simple rectangular design with four lean-tos – greenhouse, kitchen, carport/bathroom and nook.
Anneke’s house is almost entirely heated and cooled using passive solar design principles. It is of reverse veneer construction, with corrugated iron on the outside, insulation in the middle and blockwork on the inside: thermal mass on the inside is protected from outside heating/cooling.
The walls are a mix of plywood and filled concrete blocks – quick to lay and fine when bagged. Anneke chose space over finishing (she estimates that 20–30% of a budget can be spent on finishing), so the materials and finishes are cost-effective and basic, yet beautiful in their simplicity.
The house is easy to heat and cool, partly because of the design and materials used, and partly because of the greenhouse on the northern side which warms up the house on winter days with any amount of sun. The fire is lit only on cold winter nights – last winter she went through just one trailer load of wood. The house is cooled down in summer when the doors are opened up to let the breeze through. An internal grapevine provides shading– replacing original shadecloth – and table grapes are protected from marauding animals.
A greenhouse is the cheapest way to extend living space in a house, and people have used them in various forms for a very long time. Anneke wishes she’d made the greenhouse roof higher to fit in taller plants.
Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt
Anneke’s property is nearly entirely productive land. She has extensive vegetable gardens and a huge caged orchard. She is self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, reflecting the same principle with which she built her house: plan your meals around what you’ve got rather than the other way round.
Work in the garden is shared with others, including family. The greenhouse is a key component, used for propagating and seed raising. Anneke was a founding member of the local seed savers group which grows, saves, cleans, stores and distributes seeds of edible and useful plants. There is plenty of room in the garden for her to grow seed for the group, which she dries in her ceiling space.
Anneke’s home is a true example of many of the permaculture principles in practice. Although never having formally studied permaculture she has always been influenced by it.
She remains interested in sustainable and small house construction, and is currently working on plans for an earthroofed structure in a coastal town nearby.
Lessons From This Project
Moving to the country and self-building is worth doing. Things to take into account include:
- state and local council design and approval rules, and time to negotiate them
- energy efficiency – passive solar design requires careful attention to the three basics of
- thermal mass – especially slab depth (connected to the earth, an excellent insulator) and insulation (appropriately rated high-density polystyrene)
- design your building around the materials you have rather than the other way around
- avoid debt by having enough saved to get started, and keep within budget by selecting and sourcing cost effective – including locally recycled – materials
- building with basic skills is possible, if you keep it simple you can learn as you go
- working as a group is efficient, and it doesn’t have to be family.