Made With Heart: The Journey Of An Eco-Build

home
The wood-fired stove and surrounds has become a centrepiece of the house for heating, cooking, wood storage, seat and heat sink. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

After years being active in co-creating the Bend eco-neighbourhood, it finally was time for Peter Ascot and Serena Kean to build a home on their own block within it. They wanted a beautiful home for their family of five – one that would function well in its design and environmental performance, and live up to the ideals of the place.

Planning & Design

Being located in Bega, far from major cities, Peter and Serena’s original goal of fully recycling a relocated house proved impractical. Instead, they started from scratch, incorporating the requirements of the subdivision right from the planning stage. Considerations included creating an adequate roof area for water collection and integrating a composting toilet within their specific building envelope.

Where they were living and how they lived also shaped the design of their new home. Replicating their very large, open living space was a priority, but its orientation was key: oriented correctly, it would become the thermal engine of their passive solar design. Orientation was also a factor in how they thought about the house itself: ‘For us, the “front” is the bit facing the natural environment – our garden – while the bit that faces the bitumen accessway – with its letterbox and a spot to leave a car – is very much the “back”.’

Site Preparation & Landscaping

Every build starts with site preparation. Happily, Peter and Serena’s principal building contractor was so in tune with Bend, he bought the block to the east of them! Later, Serena bought the block to the west, planning to create a home for another family member and enabling the sloping sites to be excavated jointly. Even better, they could landscape across the total width of the three blocks (forty-two metres), with no earth leaving the site.

By terracing the blocks, water was preserved in the terrain, while the use of large rocks meant they could build major retaining walls of outstanding durability and low energy. They even fashioned a ‘stone couch’ for passers-by in the stone wall that runs along a neighbourhood path at the northern boundary.

The rocks provide winter warmth in the gardens and support a broader community of life from plants, with their soil and water, to animals, by providing habitat. The family shares their land with a water dragon, birds and even redbellied blacksnakes, though these are far less hazardous when they can easily retreat into safe refuges.

The Structure

The house itself is largely made of the earth – the outside is finished in clay render, as is about half of the interior downstairs. This approach made great use of second-hand and natural materials, and didn’t require painting or future maintenance.

Due to termite regulations, a compliant pine frame was constructed, over which they horizontally fixed rusty old corrugated-iron sheets. The large front room had a curved ceiling and double-thickness stud walls, creating deeper window reveals and a greater sense of mass, as well as more insulation volume. Around curved walls, the corrugated-iron sheets were fixed vertically to bend around the arc.

The next big job was to cover it all with clay, leaving just the best-quality corrugated iron exposed as eaves. Though bushfires are not a huge issue in town, it made a practical and attractive finish. Next, a thick body coat of mud render was trowelled on, filling the corrugations and covering the peaks by about 10 mm. This coat included soaked clay, lime, wood shavings, sand and cement. Borrowing a technique used around the deep reveals of strawbale windows, nylon mesh was rubbed into the top of this layer. The final coat (without wood shavings) was sponged to a smooth finish, creating an adobe look rich with the inherent qualities of the clay used.

Clockwise from above: Peter and Serena out the front of their home; The reclaimed door in the bathroom with the tiles from the tip; The earth floor is made with love and captures the warmth of the sun. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt

The Interior

As part of their commitment to using minimal concrete, Peter and Serena opted for an earth floor. This created very efficient thermal mass with the lowest possible embodied energy, and put the earth they excavated back into their home and lives.

As all soils behave differently, it’s a matter of trial and error getting an earth floor right; the freshly excavated subsoil had the perfect natural moisture content, ensuring their 120 mm base layer rammed in perfectly and dried without cracks. The mud layer, however, was a very different story!

‘Because we worked on it ourselves, we were committed to a high level of finish – beautiful, not just done.’ Unfortunately, the mud layer shrank and cracked repeatedly, and machines were too harsh for it. In the end, a long redgum post with a base plate attached was used to compact it and create the finish they were after. Leftover tile was inset into the floor in high-wear areas (near the door and stairs), then the clay was sealed with a mix of linseed oil and turpentine.

For the downstairs area, Peter and Serena sourced Dalsouple genuine rubber in large floor tiles from France, reducing its embodied energy by insisting on longer delivery time by ship, rather than by air. The renewable, non-toxic tiles created a hard, but yielding surface that is also energysaving – it can be swept and mopped instead of vacuumed. ‘It’s easy as an adult to think of floors as “something down there”, but children are floor-dwellers. This material makes a comfortable surface to be on, not just to walk through.’

An Organic Approach

Key to Serena and Peter’s design approach was establishing their priorities and living them. The pass mark for a true ecobuild rests on the integrity of every choice along the way, from design, to materials, to labour relations. Assisting this process was their organic approach to the whole build: there was no schedule or budget, just a determination to create something beautiful, useful and kind to the planet. Building regulations and their drawings shaped much of it, but what they had in second-hand materials often guided them on-site.

Starting with a large pile of materials gathered over the years, they added to it from waste skips passed each frosty morning on the bicycle trip from their old home to their building site. As if by magic, things came along when needed: at a local tip they found over 80 travertine limestone tiles, their corners chipped, for $40. These were cut down to perfect squares and used to tile the whole bathroom to stunning effect. The offcuts were later used elsewhere in the home.

Crafted into the rendered walls were little niches, truth windows, sweeping curvy bits and seating. Elsewhere, a chunk of old steel found in the scrap-metal pile was mudded into a place of prominence as an industrial art feature. Almost every visible surface in the house, excepting the plasterboard, was created using reused or found materials.

Turlough, Peter, Serena and Pearl
One of the many interesting little niches in the house

An Ongoing Evolution

Moving into a house before it is utterly finished – as Peter and Serena did – can be a trap, but it does allow for finishing touches to be responsive to things you can only observe in situ, as Peter and Serena soon found out. ‘Bega has sunny winter days and our passive heating worked well – walking in the back door, it felt like someone had left a heater on, and upstairs the bathroom was toasty – but after a few dull days, we would run out of solar hot water.’

They had planned for – but not installed – a wood heater with a water jacket. After living in the house for a couple of years, they knew the heater would provide many other winter benefits – house heating, clothes drying, cooking and baking, reuse of woody clippings, constant kettle and night light – all while providing a focus point and comfort at a deep human level.

Wherever the heater was located, it would be complex to send the flue skywards through two storeys. By waiting to install the heater until after they moved in, they knew the flow and focal points of how they lived, and saw an opportunity to create another beautiful feature. Dividing the space with a backing wall and seat seemed to make the room larger and more useful, and created a study nook behind it, near the stairs. Wall panels of reinforced Hebel provided a fireproof surround and also the strong seat over a wood storage area, which was finished to match the rest of the clay-rendered house. Though time-consuming, slicing up the tile offcuts from the bathroom allowed them to be applied around the curves of the seat.

The impact the heater had on their daily lives made it worth the wait. ‘By using wood grown or found here at Bend, we are producing zero net carbon emissions, with the ash returning to our compost or garden. Having an oven in the fire unit means we can process any slow-cooking food from our garden – for example cutting and freezing our late-summer quinces, then making quince paste in the winter while the fire is on anyway.’

windows
The recycled doors and window of the bathroom face north, keeping the bathroom warm in winter. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

An Eco-Build Success

At the end of the build, the entire waste generated was under 3.2 cubic metres, some of which had originally been sourced from waste skips. Timber offcuts warmed the family through the two winters they spent living in their old home during construction. They even bagged the sawdust for later use in the composting toilet!

But even more valuable than the end result, was the process itself. ‘The joy, the satisfaction – “the juice” – is in the effort spent on the arguably unnecessary, but enriching, fiddly bits, as you implement from patterns to detail. If the focus is on a finish date, there will be no time to stand back and see the opportunities. The best parts of our house were not planned and contrived, they were allowed.’

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