Our kids love the bright orange and yellow house we’ve built: of course – they helped design it, and chose the colours! Ecovillage homes don’t have to be in muted tones of forest green and mission brown.
Nature abounds with colour and beauty, and our permaculture garden is filled with these. These are reflected by bold splashes of colour on the walls that bring a fun, happy, positive feeling to the spaces in and around our home, and reflect a lively glow into our rooms, making a great living and learning space. We’ve been building our house at Crystal Waters Eco Village, near Maleny in Queensland, for just over a decade.
We are owner builders and have almost finished. You know the story – just need a few trims here and there, a pergola, a small set of steps at the back door …
Owner building with family and friends halved our costs. In the process we’ve become deeply connected to this place, and have a real understanding of all the materials, design features, structural elements, technologies and plumbing. We can never thank my dad enough: he was our main builder, and without him we’d still be at stage one.
Houses like this are not a commodity, not designed for resale but to live in, to love, to share. We’ll be here a long time.
Low Ecological Footprint
Our aim was to build a low-impact and low maintenance home that produces energy, water and food, recycles wastes and supports us in reducing our ecological footprint, hopefully by seventy-five per cent.
Ecological footprint studies suggest that if everyone living on this planet lived like an average Australian, we would need about four Earths to meet each person’s needs and absorb their wastes. With just one we must use and waste less – seventy-five per cent less. How do we do this? What does this way of life look like? These are some of the questions that we asked as we designed our house.
We Have No Mortgage
Ecologically designed houses aren’t inherently more expensive – particularly if they are small. Eco-homes can have low ongoing costs. Through careful ecological planning and design we have created a home that has almost no power bills, no water bills, no bank loan and low food bills. We collect all our own rainwater, produce enough solar power for our needs, grow a lot of food in our extensive kitchen gardens, and we exchange food with neighbours and the school garden.
Buildable, Affordable And Modular
The most sensible thing we did was to design and build our home in small, affordable and buildable modules or ‘pods’. It now has four bedrooms, a separate office and a self-contained guest room. It has grown as our family has grown, and as we gathered energy, resources and funds to proceed. By building in stages we avoided borrowing money from banking institutions.
Stage one was a rapidly built studio/ office to store our belongings while we taught permaculture around the world in 2003. The pole frame structure is low maintenance and clad with Zincalume which is super easy to build with.
We were on a steep learning curve at the beginning, and wanted to cut our teeth on something simple before we attempted the main house. We lived comfortably in the studio/office while the house was under construction. The outdoor shower under the stars was great, although we’re happy to let go of the toilet tent.
The Main House
One third is outdoor living space, one third is open plan kitchen/living/dining and the other third is private space (bedroom, toilet, bathroom/laundry). The core pod dimensions are close to the smallest internal space that council will approve as a house. The cathedral ceilings give the small building a greater sense of space and light, and with lots of louvres ventilation is great.
The method of building we chose – using timber and tin – was influenced by the subtropical vernacular, the knowledge and skill we had in our building team and the versatility of the method to be completed in stages.
We clad the timber frame with local weatherboards, but on the south-west, storm-facing side we used Zincalume. Ply bracing panels on each side help the house to stand up, and we chose to make them a feature – by finishing them and painting them the brightest orange we could find.
Our floorboards and decking were rescued from a flooded mill where they were to be burnt. The verandah rails and internal benches come from trees at Crystal Waters.
The kitchen is the central hub of the house – ‘Mumma central’ – from where I can see: the children’s play areas inside and out; the pathway to the house, and know when people are arriving; the terraces of vegetables and fruits, and know when to send the kids to guide the wallaby or bush turkey back out; the chickens and guinea pigs, and can check that they are safe from the goshawk and carpet snake.
The Children’s Pod
While the space was perfect with two young children who wanted to be close all the time, with another baby coming we decided we needed the children’s pod, to connect the office and house, and with walkways. The shared play space is big, bright and airy, with a polished concrete floor for thermal mass. In conjunction with good eave design, the room is comfortable throughout the year – and very hardy!
Three small bedrooms connect directly onto this play space, which also opens out to the verandah and garden. Each bedroom has a primary-coloured door, but the walls throughout the house are white. We used Porters Paints because of their quality and durability; they also have no VOCs, are water-based and are made by a local Australian company, not mass-produced.
A small, 1.1 kW grid-interactive solar power system sits on our north facing studio roof, and usually produces enough for our family of five, house guests and WWOOFers. Choice of appliances and careful use help keep our energy usage low. We have an efficient fridge, no air conditioning, and our hot water is from an Edwards solar split system with a manually operated (solar) electric booster. Our power bill is usually zero, and our usage is normally one third that of a standard home.
Water efficiency and resilience are important. Each pod has a large rainwater tank attached, totalling more than 50 000 litres. With a composting toilet and water conservation practices, we use little water. The house tank has never run out, but if it did, we can gravity feed from a higher tank.
Reticulated river water is also available throughout the village. We use this for washing clothes and watering the garden, and it also provides high pressure for the fire hydrant.
Our greywater system has been copied and evolved by many people at Crystal Waters and beyond: it’s small, simple, effective and cheap. Water from the house is filtered through a 5 x 1 x 0.5 m reed bed, made mostly from reclaimed materials and gravel. The water then travels to a banana and taro pit.
We compost, reuse and upcycle everything we can. Our garden has compost bays, a compost bin, worm farms and towers, comfrey tea barrels, bokashi buckets and chickens.
We have a ‘humanure’ dry composting toilet inside – a Clivus Multrum CM8 – which reduces our water consumption by eighty per cent compared to neighbouring houses with flush toilets. It produces a surprisingly small amount of compost which we bury in the orchard. The toilet needs little maintenance, and as long as the little exhaust fan keeps working it’s great.
Playful Polycultural Permaculture
Our kitchen garden is a polycultural permaculture space – full of perennials, self-seeding annuals, fruits, roots, herbs, flowers, medicinals and fibres. The garden is very much connected to the house, a crucial and integrated part of the dwelling and design. It is a series of outdoor rooms that respond to, inform and connect with our daily life.
Play spaces are integrated into the garden. Edible playscapes are delightful for children: snowpea teepees, cassava hideouts, flower cafes, sandpit kitchens, ponds, fairy rooms and an evening firepit for storytelling and cook-ups. A garden that attracts our children to play in it makes it easier for us to be out gardening, maintaining and harvesting. And we can see the love and appreciation for gardening, wildlife and the seasons being absorbed so naturally by them.
We use our house and garden regularly for permaculture courses, tours and workshops and designed them with this in mind – with large nodes in the garden, broad paths, a large verandah for classes and meals, and a wide kitchen servery through hand-crafted windows.
L-R: Our permaculture garden is filled with perennials, edible flowers and self-seeding veggies. Designed to enhance natural light and ventilation. Monty in front of connecting pods. Photos by SEED International
Our house is on one of eighty-three, one-acre residential lots at Crystal Waters. Crystal Waters, established twenty-five years ago is the first village to be designed using the principles of permaculture, and in 1995 received a United Nations World Habitat Award for ‘demonstrating low impact and sustainable ways of living’.
From Crystal Waters’ village green you can see our house. We wanted to be close, so the kids could walk and ride their bikes. It is where the community connects through the bakery, which is open on Saturdays and the market held once a month.
We love living here. Both Crystal Waters and Maleny have a vibrant creative energy, and a rich tapestry of sustainability and community initiatives. There is clear commitment to community, developing local food abundance and local economic resilience. Also, being debt free enables us to work locally in our community, to volunteer on great projects – to be engaged citizens.
Come and visit us. Tours of the village and our house are usually available on market days. Permaculture workshops are regularly offered. Camping is always available and WWOOFers very welcome.
Morag Gamble and Evan Raymond are permaculture teachers and designers, visit SEED International at www. seedinternational.com.au, or write to email@example.com.
To find out more about Crystal Waters, see www.crystalwaters.org.au