PacificEdge
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PacificEdge

Travels in the Off-Grid…

9. The co-op

People wander past the water storage towards Suzie Edward’s off-grid home at Penrose Rural Co-op. A wind turbine sits atop the tower behind the house and supplements the photovoltaic panels in supplying energy that is stored in a bank of deep cycle batteries.

A YELLOW-BROWN dust haze follows the van as we make our way along the narrow gravel road past field and bushland. This is farming country we pass through, cleared, open fields interspersed with patches of eucalyptus forest. The trees are smaller varieties, their trunks and limbs twisted and rough grasses growing below, they are typical of so much of the Australian bush.

We are on the Southern Highlands, an upland region given to the extremes of such places. Hot, sometimes dry summers and cold winter mornings, the Highlands is a well-watered region, a good place to set up an intentional community that is not too long a car journey to the nearby towns and only a little over two hours by road to Sydney.

The Mitsubishi might be small but it is adequately sized for minimalist travel and living on-the-road. It replaced Fiona’s old white T2 Kombi when it spluttered to the end of its life. It is not a new van but it will prove a reliable one over the coming years. A commercial vehicle of the kind used to deliver goods around town, we’ve installed a rear bench seat that folds down to make a sleeping platform. Other than that we have made no further refinements to improve the van’s liveability. It is basic transport and accommodation. The van takes us through sweaty summer evenings in the northern subtropics, into freezing winter nights below the ski fields of Mt Beauty and up to the snow for cross-country skiing. Occasionally, it carries us out to the flatlands of Western NSW. This time it is south that we are headed.

After some kilometres the road follows a sweeping curve and we park near a timber building on the other side of which is a stand of tagasaste trees and a fruit orchard. We’ve reached the Co-op.

We are here for the second weekend of the permaculture design course we run in Sydney through our small business, PacificEdge Permaculture. Like our business the course is part-time, spanning three months and meeting mostly on Sundays at Randwick Community Centre. It is a course oriented to life in large metropolitan cities rather than towards homesteading. That suits most of the students because they have no intention of leaving the city. Penrose Rural Co-op is the destination for the second and the last weekend of the course where we have a celebration of its ending.

The co-op with its mudbrick and timber dwellings offers both insight and inspiration. Most of the students have never seen a land-sharing co-op, nor energy and water efficient buildings, nor any that produce their own electricity. We bring them here because the co-op offers a new experience, and to show them the possibilities of other ways of living. They learn much about off-grid living from Suzie Edwards and from builder, Godfrey Davies, who lives here in the timber house he built himself.

Godfrey Davies was a builder who made his own timber home at the co-op. Behind is his partially finished building modelled on the yurt.

Southward bound

The land slopes gently towards Paddy’s River, a grand term for what is just the shallow creek that separates it from the plantation of radiata pine beyond. Grassland covers the open space between the river and the houses and is home to an occasional mob of grazing kangaroos. The property is a wildlife sanctuary. Much of the land the co-op occupies is open grassland, the legacy of its previous use as a grazing property. Copses of eucalyptus have been left standing.

Before Peter graduated from Sydney University’s architecture faculty in the late-1970s, with friends, he and Suzie bought the old grazing property as a weekend retreat. After he graduated they built and moved in. The choice of the temperate climate of the Southern Highlands over the subtropical climate of the state’s northern regions was the opposite of that of many seeking a new life on the new intentional communities and in rural towns.

The Co-op is one of the early models of its type. It was made possible by NSW’s Multiple Occupancy land-sharing legislation and was one of the first development under the it. It is typical of the 1970s model of intentional community. Like them, but unlike modern-day ecovillages, it is the creation of people who came together with the intention of setting up a community and then finding the land to build it on.

A large farm dam was excavated and construction got underway. Soon after acquiring the property, work started on a timber building and the planting of an orchard beyond the paved outdoor living area. A pergola was erected on the northern side over which a deciduous vine was grown to provide summer shade and to allow through winter’s warming sunlight. Eventually, the building became visitor accommodation. That, and as a teaching space, is how it served our courses. Later, termites and time rendered the building unusable although the orchard continued to yield apples and other fruit suited to the temperate, upland climate.

A service road passes through the property and the widely-spread owner-built houses, all mudbrick other than Dudley’s timber house, are located along it. The homes have fruit trees and vegetable gardens large enough to supplement the food requirements of those living in them.

Return

Suzie and her late partner, Peter’s two level home at the Co-op. The lower level is mud brick, the upper timber, the roof galvanised iron. Sunward-facing greenhouses channel heat into the house in winter and can be closed-off to exclude overheating in summer. Energy comes from photovoltaic panels and a small wind turbine charging deep-cycle batteries.

It is winter on the Southern Highlands when we again visit Penrose Rural Coop, a time when the warmth of the sun is weak and the cold south-westerlies chill the air.

We follow the foot track past the dam and on to Peter and Suzie’s small but comfortable two level mudbrick home. No matter how cold it is outside, to step into the yellow-orange mudbrick glow of the house is to enter an abode of warmth. This is an owner-built building that uses thoughtful design, renewable technologies such as wind and photovoltaics and an efficient wood heater and stove to maintain a comfortable interior climate.

The building’s long axis runs east-west, exposing the northern length of the structure to the sun for maximum solar gain and warming in winter. The sun streams through the sunward, north-facing glazed doors and into the two greenhouses along the northern wall of the structure that are separated by timber deck. An old Cocker Spaniel reclines in the warmth of one of the green houses and in the other a flat-plate solar water heater absorbs the day’s warmth. A bookshelf divides living room and office and, at the back of the living room adjacent to a wood heater, a staircase leads to two upstairs bedrooms.

Eaves protect the interior from the direct sunlight of summer but the low-angled winter sunlight shines through the glass doors and onto the tile floor of the living room. As the temperature falls on cool evenings the tiles slowly release the heat stored during the day. Even without the wood heater the house can be comfortably warm even though cold winds blow outside.

No ordinary house, this. That is obvious as you approach it along the track across the wall of the farm dam. Susie and Peter nestled the mudbrick structure into a cutting made in the north-facing fall to Paddy’s River. Seen on a blustery, cold winter day, the warm hues of mudbrick blend with the weathered brown of the timber upper storey to create the impression of a welcoming, comfortable home.

Photovoltaic panels and a small wind turbine feed a large bank of deep-cycle batteries. Water falling on the sloping roof flows into two large, galvanised iron storage tanks that supply household and garden needs (there is no town water supply). The wood-burning slow combustion heater warms the living room during the cold winter nights. A wood-fired stove adds its heat as it cooks food in the kitchen when bottled gas is not being used. The greenhouses either side of the sunward-facing deck serve for propagating seed for the vegetable garden. In winter their warm air is vented into the house. Close to the house is a vegetable garden beyond which the outlook is over grassland that turns yellow in the heat of summer.

Sunward-facing glasshouses either side of an open deck provide space for a flat-plate solar hot water system, seedlings and the dog. Opening the vents to the interior allows warm air to flow inside in winter.

Quite some years after finishing their house, Susie and Peter built an adjacent A-frame building, a timber structure serving as art studio for Susie and accommodation for guests.

A builder in timber

Tall and slowly-spoken, with a wealth of know-how and skills and with a keen interest in appropriate technology, Dudley is a builder. His owner-built timber house stands close to a copse of eucalyptus trees and, like Peter and Suzie’s house, its long axis faces north to make the most of the sun’s warmth. A verandah occupies the northern aspect, its roof excluding the hot sunlight of summer and shading the interior. Below is space for rainwater tanks and storage.

Godfrey Davies build his own house at Penrose Rural Co-op. The yurt behind was a later addition.

Years after building his house Dudley contructed a separate structure immediately upslope. It is an octagonal, timber building inspired by the Mongolian yurt that sits atop a mudbrick base through which people enter. We sometimes use its uncluttered space as a teaching venue for our permaculture design courses.

Another mudbrick home, this one a two-level structure larger than Peter and Suzie’s, is the first encountered on following the dirt road into the community. Food for its occupants is grown in raised vegetable garden beds close to the house. Later, a woman, a nurse as I recall, built her own mudbrick house nearby.

Like Suzie and Peter’s, this house at the co-op uses mudbrick for its lower level and timber for its upper. Like most poeople at the co-op, the occupants grow some of their own food.

Less well known

Unlike some intentional communities in northern NSW, Penrose Rural Co-op remained largely unknown. Other than hosting our permaculture design course, the residents didn’t host events or seek attention as a model development even though that is what it was. It was a harmonious place untroubled by the ructions that occurred in communities where people with different ideas and outlooks were brought together and had to learn to live together and make decisions as a group rather than as the individuals they were in the city.

Peter and Suzie developed a contented lifestyle there in the Tablelands. Peter passed away in the mid-1990s and is missed by all who knew him. Susie continues to live in their mudbrick house and continues her art work.

Dudley was one of the original residents of the Coop. He later left for a new life on the NSW mid-north coast.

Dudley’s polyangular building modelled on the Mongolian yurt suts atop a mudbrick base.

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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.