PacificEdge
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PacificEdge

Travels in the Off-Grid…

7. Building the DIY way

An owner-built cottage with food growing in the garden was the goal of many who set put for a new life in the country. The notion of self-reliance in food, domestic energy and water was attractive.

IT WAS an attractive idea. It was also a major project in life. For most of the alternative cohort it was the biggest, most ambitious project they would engaged in. What brought together those who sought a new life in the country was an interest in owner building.

They were abetted in this by the appearance of a book written in response to the surge of interest. Low Cost Country Home Building, by Sydney University architecture faculty’s, the late Col James, was widely consulted. It was the owner-builders’ manual enclosing between its large format, paperback covers the know-how necessary to make your own home. The book must be counted as one of the most influential of its time for that youth cohort seeking new ways of living beyond the city limits.

We are talking the 1970s here. Col went on to involvement in social and environmental work. He was behind the construction of Australia’s first autonomous house and he advised on the Green Bans that were led by leftist trade union leader, Jack Munday, which saved much of Sydney’s built heritage and urban bushland. He worked on the adoption of NSW’s Multiple Occupancy land-sharing legislation that created the legal pathway for intentional communities.

Owner-building was attracting academia, too. The editor of the UK magazine, Undercurrents, combined an article of mine with one from the Steiner-influenced Sydney architect, Mark Baxter. The story about the first autonomous house to be described as such. It was built where Sydney University’s Seymour Centre now stands. A temporary building, it was a practical design-and-build exercise for Sydney University’s architecture students, featuring a solar aspect to make the most of sunlight, a wind turbine, solar hot water and reused materials.

Coincidentally, it stood close to Michael Mobbs’ present day sustainable house, separated by a few hundred metres and more than a few decades. Michael’s is claimed to be the first energy, water and materials-efficient autonomous house in Sydney.

Dancing Elephants and intentional community

Tall and slim with shoulder length brown hair usually tied back in a ponytail, Ry Mitchell was a graduate of Sydney University’s architecture school. Ry followed the owner builder, off-grid ethic as an earth construction specialist while living in Sydney. Ry might have been an architect, however he made futons for a living. Dancing Elephant was the name of his small business. Decades later I still have one of his creations.

My partner and I were members of a group brought together by Ry who met at what was then the Permaculture Epicentre in Enmore, now Alfalfa House Food Co-op. It was the 1980s, and there in the backroom we discussed plans for an off-grid intentional community on the NSW south coast. It was to be based on the Italian hill town. Medium density earth construction dwellings were to be clustered at centre with rural, community-owned land surrounding.

There were perhaps ten people who attended the meetings. We discussed ideas about how this community could come about and how it would work. The model combined clustered, open-space-conserving medium density dwellings with the potential for agriculture and nature conservation on surrounding land. Unlike modern ecovillages, the descendants of the intentional communities of the seventies in which dwellings are often dispersed over the land, dwellings would be concentrated in a limited area to free-up the surrounding space for other uses.

Later, we joined another would-be community development that also met at the Permaculture Epicentre. Inner Pod Cohousing was the brainchild of a then-Sydney University geography student. The idea was for a medium density development modelled on the Scandinavian cohousing model with shared facilities such as communal kitchen (the dwellings would have their own small kitchens), workshop, laundry and other features. It would be built somewhere in the inner-urban region.

Inner Pod suffered the same fate as the south coast intentional community. Time passed without anything substantial being done. People drifted away. Neither village nor cohousing were built.

Earthways

Tall, thoughtful and quietly spoken, Brian Woodward was another of that Sydney University student cohort. Like Ry, he was an earth construction specialist.

Brian built a large off-grid mudbrick home for his family at Wollombi, not far north of Sydney. Energy came from the sun via photovoltaic panels and deep cycle batteries. Water was harvested from the roof and stored in tanks. Toilets were of the composting type. The thermal mass of the mudbrick walls made the interior cool in summer, warm in winter. Brian called his property Earthways.

Brian offered workshops in mudbrick construction that attracted people from the city. There was growing interest in mudbrick construction at the time, an interest propelled to some extent by the local permaculture group, Permaculture Sydney. It paralleled that evident elsewhere, particularly in Victoria.

The attraction of mud

For those with clay on their land, mudbrick construction offered a cheap, DIY building material. Pise — compressed earth — was a less-common alternative earth construction material on the East Coast because of its climatic needs, however pise buildings started to appear in South Australia’s Mediterranean climate.

Mudbrick was durable. It was economical. It was the ideal DIY material if you had clay on your land and were prepared to put in the time and the sweat. At this time there was a mutual assistnce scheme in Victoria in which participants helped build two mudbrick homes after which they became eligible for assistance in building their own. It was a positive example of self-help affordable housing. The mutual assistance model was later unknowingly reinvented by Permaculture South’s PermaNet and, later, by permaculture’s Permablitz home garden construction and maintenance schemes.

Limited budgets forced owner builders to seek cheap but durable materials. Mudbrick and timber, with galvanised iron for roofing were the materials of choice. Shingle roofs were few. Log cabins were largely non-existent because of a lack of suitable timber.

Instructions for DIY solar hot water systems and the appearance of photovoltaic panels on buildings, few they may have been, were the work of innovators on the social fringe. Mains energy was cheap at the time. Houses were affordable if you had a fulltime salary. Food was flooding into the supermarkets and it, too, was cheap. Why bother with DIY?

Buoyant economies are not forever. Good times end. The ‘why bother’ question was suddenly thrust into prominence when in 1973 OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, turned off the oil taps to Western nations in retaliation for the West’s support of Israel in the war of that year. The West’s vulnerability to reliance on Middle Eastern oil was now clear. Turn off the taps and economies could grind to a halt.

The oil crisis took the West by surprise but it also unleashed a broad interest in renewable energy systems which was never to completely disappear over coming decades although it would slow as economies picked up. Research and development over the years following the oil crisis brought improved efficiency and cost reductions to renewable energy systems. This accelerated in the new century and would be given impetus by the growing awareness of the implications of global warming and the need to move on from oil and coal.

The closure of Owner Builder magazine in the late teens of the century was a loss to DIY builders. The magazine carried case studies and how-to information. Perhaps the loss will be taken up by the books on building that appear from time to time as well the information online. Whether the closure was the result of changes in how people access information or whether there was a generational change factor such as fewer people building their own homes was not made public.

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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.