Clockwise from top: View looking east out to sea; Chooks in the orchard; The east side of the house in the morning sun; Marg and John. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt
The site of Marg and John Sandefur’s house was a bare paddock on top of a ridge overlooking the ocean. The views were amazing but their location meant they were exposed to some wild weather.
They didn’t do the usual thing of building the house first then consider the landscaping. Instead Marg and John, with the help of Hugh Gravestein and his team at HG Eco Logic Constructions, designed from pattern to detail. By the time they’d moved in they had established shelter belts protecting their home and were eating from their fruit trees.
Marg and John left Melbourne looking for a place that would provide them with an easy lifestyle in a beautiful and peaceful location where they could build a house that was carbon neutral. After travelling as far as Harvey Bay and back, they felt they had found their place in the Bega Valley.
They were introduced to Hugh Gravestein, an experienced permaculturalist and builder, not long after arriving in the Bega Valley. Hugh lived across the road from the property they ended up buying and knew the site well. He knew what could be done to mitigate some of the elemental forces that exist when living on top of a ridge.
By employing Hugh, they were getting much more than just a builder, they were getting a thoughtful permaculture designer. From the very beginning Hugh made suggestions that would help shape their house to be a property that functioned well and settled into the landscape quickly.
When planning their home, they thought about the house and the view, not necessarily thinking about all of the other elements at work. But with a permaculture framework they began to think of their property as a whole. That inspired them to design their property more holistically and start the implementation before the build even began.
One of the standout elements of this build was that they did a broadbrush design of all the elements of the property in the initial stage. This enabled berms, swales, dams and irrigation lines to be constructed with the earth moving machinery when it was there to cut the house site. With all the earthworks done at the one time, it was more economical and meant there was no double handling of services.
A sewerage slit system was approved at the pre-slab stage of house construction. The plumbing was directed to the orchard into a controlled underground infiltration system; a major water conservation strategy by meeting all the orchard’s water needs from greywater.
The dam was also constructed at the same time and it was well placed to capture run-off from the road. The water gets pumped from the bottom dam up to a header tank above the house where it is gravity fed through driplines to the citrus and the covered orchard. They also have a 100,000 litre tank for rainwater and have never got below 70,000 litres.
The property gets hit hard by weather from both the south and the north-west. To mitigate these harsh winds, shelterbelts were planted on the south and the north-west of the house. Choosing the correct species of plant was important to make them work effectively for the property.
To the south of the house, a two row shelterbelt was prepped and planted with Pittosporum in the first row and Casuarina cunninghamia in the second row. These plants are not only native to the area but work extremely well as a windbreak. By choosing the right trees for the right spot they’ve had no losses. All trees planted have survived and now nine years after planting, they’re tall and protect the house well. They are also sprouting up of their own accord.
To the north-west they had a berm built, into which they planted citrus and olives. Now the winds mostly go over the top. ‘The berm has been such a good thing for privacy, containment of the wind and weather, and it’s a good sound block too,’ says Marg. ‘Before I met Hugh I didn’t even know what a berm was. It’s just so simple. It’s very pretty, covered in trees and has birds living in there.’
‘A berm can be the quickest modification to the landscape that really achieves some results,’ explains Hugh. ‘You add small dense shrubs to it that thicken out and grow quickly because it’s all disturbed soil. And it’s created a microclimate for the citrus. It worked very well.’
Each side of the house has its own climate and microclimates as well. The east has been left pretty open due to the remarkable views and outlook to the sea so this captures the morning sun and warmth. To the north is the sunroom and protection from trees in the berm and shelter belt. To the west are deep verandahs which block the westerly sun, and to the south there are layers of shelter against the extremely harsh cold weather that hits from the south. During the build the rains came through horizontally, belting the wall despite the 2.4 m wide verandah.
Applying permaculture principles during the house design contributed to a very functional, energy efficient and beautiful home. Marg and John started designing the house, with the help of an architect friend but ‘it was getting a bit too fancy’ explains Marg. So in a burst of inspiration, Marg sat down and drew up the initial plans herself, completing them within 36 hours.
Marg and John’s house has all of the living areas on the north-east side and the bedrooms and bathrooms to the south. On the north side it has a sunroom that captures the winter sun. In summer, doors at both ends allow the heat to pass through. Between the sunroom and the living room is a double-glazed door which helps insulate from the heat in summer and keep the daytime heat in at night in winter. ‘This keeps the house warm in winter and we only need to light the fire at night,’ says John. ‘In the middle of winter when it’s cold outside, people come and stand in front of the fire and then realise it’s not even on.’
Hugh suggested timbercrete for the building material as it aligned with John and Marg’s desires for a zero carbon house. ‘Timbercrete is a sustainable product made from waste sawdust and clay and then air-dried over 12 weeks,’ explains John. ‘It is very easy to work with as you can drill into it and it has great thermal capacity.’
By using solar panels, they are creating more power than they use. ‘We have a 6.5 KW system as we are waiting for batteries to become more affordable so we can go off grid,’ says Marg. ‘Currently we receive a credit for each of our power bills.’
The property is 10 acres (4 hectares), with two thirds of it left as natural bush. Marg and John fenced off a smallish area around the house which requires some routine mowing but apart from that it is fairly low maintenance.
With broadbrush thoughtful design implemented at the beginning of the project, Marg and John were able to move into a house already functioning well in the landscape. And their property was already providing for them without them having to wait years for the surroundings to catch up with the house.
Hugh Gravestein and sons run HG Eco Logic Constructions www.ecologicspaces.com