Book review…

A Good Home Forever

Take a town in the mountains, a suburban brick house, some permaculture knowledge, an infusion of motivation and a strong do-it-ourselves spirit, and what do you have?

What you have is a economically-produced booklet of 25 pages, a DVD, and the woman who made it all happen.

Brief but informative

Rosemary Morrow wrote this brief manual on retrofitting your home for energy and water efficiency and food production in 2009, not long before she decamped to the NSW North Coast. That didn’t last. She returned to the mountain town where she had earlier retrofitted the suburban house the subject of her booklet. There, she started all over again. The town? Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains of NSW, just two and a half hour or so train journey west from Sydney.

I don’t know if the booklet, A Good Home Forever, or the DVD is still available. If not, then the more the pity because short it might be, deep it is in insight on what we can do to make our homes more comfortable, more efficient of resource use, more productive of food and of the good life.

Rosemary Morrow, author, A Good Home Forever.

The woman

Maybe you have met Rosemary. She’s now an older woman, still filled with energy and active in her teaching permaculture in both developed and less-developed countries. In recent years she came to focus on teaching permaculture educators how to teach and on working with refugees. She continued to teach in permaculture design courses in the Blue Mountains.

Hair trimmed to neck-length, plainly dressed (excluding the pearls she is sometimes seen wearing) and not tall, Rosemary exhibits the Stoic personality traits of having a positive attitude to life, treating life as an adventure, having courage and self-confidence and a strong sense of justice. All good things for a permaculture educator who has worked in some tricky situations.

Combine these characteristics with Rosemary’s practical experience in retrofitting her Katoomba house and garden, and she was well-placed when it came producing A Good Home Forever.

An illustration from A Good Home Forever.

Taking control of our lives and homes

Rosemary proposes that we respond to economic downturn and the crisis in sustainability by taking control of our lives and examining what we want in a home. Her home, the one she features in her booklet, was a brick veneer house. “There are probably hundreds of thousands in Sydney almost exactly the same, built in the 1970s and 1980s”, she writes. Like most of those, her’s came with an ornamental garden that soon started to grow food and in which a pond appeared.

Rosemary describes conventional homes as ‘consumer junkies’ gulping down resources and producing only wastes. Rosemary’s solution isn’t to go out and commission an architect to design a state of the art energy efficient house. Not all that many can afford to do that. Instead, Rosemary suggests converting — retrofitting — an existing house to make it energy, water and materials efficient and to produce a little food from the garden. It is the retrofitting of existing housing stock rather than building new, resource-efficient homes that will make our cities energy and resource efficient. That concurs with what a solar-specialist architect friend told me back in the nineties.

The retrofitting of her brick veneer, suburban house is the theme of her booklet. Despite the energy consumed in its manufacture, brick (and alumimium window frames — Rosemary explains why she likes them — and galvanised iron roof) is a low-maintenance material. Brick veneer construction enabled Rosemary to remove interior walls and open-up the place. Her slow-combustion wood stove could then warm the interior during Katoomba’s chilly (let’s be honest here and say freezing) winters.

Reading her booklet, I was reminded of something Jude Fanton from the Seed Savers Network said about her and partner Michel’s house in Byron Bay. Brick veneer, Jude told me, is a good buy because the houses work well in the subtropical climate. This leads to the question as to whether brick veneer is the housing style for all climates. Seems it is for the cool temperate uplands of the Blue Mountains, anyhow.

Rosemary’s booklet is not simply about the retrofit to adapt her home to the seasonal variability of the upland climate of Katoomba. That varies between the heat of summer and the occasional light snowfall of winter. Embedded in her booklet is a philosophy of life. She suggests we assess whether we move to a more affordable location or stay where we are. It is about making choices and setting criteria.

Rosemary moved to her brick veneer from a larger property at Blackheath, higher up the mountains. In doing so she made choices based on her criteria for resilient urban living which is the focus of her publication:

  • solar access (the house faces the north, to sunward, affording access to warming sunlight)
  • partial autonomy in energy and water
  • proximity to services — Rosemary can walk to the train station, the commercial strip and is close to amenities.

There was a further criteria of financial sustainability because she didn’t want her money tied up in a mortgage. As Rosemary says, by moving to a lower-priced home you might be able to free yourself from financial anxiety in these economically troubled times, or at least set yourself on the path to doing that.

An illustration from A Good Home Forever.

An ideas book

There’s a lot to learn from Rosemary’s booklet about the application of permaculture design to the home and garden. She provides a number of site design plans as line drawings including site analysis, zone planning, site energy plan, site water plan, water catchment and storage and the vegetation zone plan. She lists costs as they were at time of publication and offers a checklist to help you think about your home.

Based on the critical, analytical and self-assessing attitude that is embedded in the permaculture design system, A Good Home Forever is an ideas book, useful reading for people reconsidering how they live.

An illustration from A Good Home Forever.

More a book outline

Putting on my editor’s hat after first reading A Good Home Forever when it was published, my impression was that it was the outline of a more detailed book. The bulleted points — Rosemary makes extensive use of dot points — could be expanded with more detail, examples, detail illustrations and photographs. Although she might have partially covered what a more ambitious book would contain in her earlier book, The Earth Users Guide to Permaculture, an expanded A Good Home Forever would apply to the specifics of her Katoomba retrofit.

Would there be a market for such a book? Since the publication date there has been a slew of books on retrofitting and resource-efficient building design. Suggesting that there might be a market was the surge of interest in the retrofitting of suburban home and the suburbs themselves that followed the publication of David Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia in 2018. That occurred mainly within the permaculture movement, bringing into question whether an expanded version of Rosemary’s book would have appeal to a broader readership.

There might be numerous books covering the same design territory that Rosemary covers, however there may be a market for a retrofitting book based on the permaculture design perspective. We have seen these before, David Holmgren’s The Flywire House being an early example. That might be largely among those with some knowledge of permaculture, however were it written from a permaculture perspective, drawing on permaculture concepts, motivations and design principles, it could find buyers. Much would depend upon it differing from Retrosuburbia. The publication of a book opens or closes the market for similar books. That is why books about the same topic have to have a marked point of difference.

An illustration from A Good Home Forever.

Book and DVD

A Good Home Forever was printed on recycled paper. I know of no ebook version. It was illustrated by Ian Dalkin and Rob Allsop. Rob has a long association with Rosemary. He made the drawings in her The Earth Users Guide to Permaculture. Rob also illustrated the interpretive panels for the Permaculture Interpretive Garden at Randwick Sustainability Hub in Sydney.

The book included an accompanying DVD featuring a 20 minute video of Rosemary’s retrofit. Produced by Gary Cagonoff’s Lysis Films in Katoomba, it included segments on particular elements of the retrofit that are of potential value to educators . These run only a few minutes each, sufficiently short to be of use by sustainability and permaculture educators in their workshops and courses.

The full 20 minute video would provide an informative case study as the leader to a structured conversation on home energy, water and resource efficiency. Educators could show it, then use the content as the basis for an ORID format (objective, reflective, interpretive, decisional) or other guided conversation.

Having said good things about the video when I viewed it upon release, did I have any suggestions for improvement? Well, yes, I did. I found the video had too much footage of talking heads. Some of this in needed but more as a lead into video of the works Rosemary carried out.

A Good Home Forever is still listed as available on its own website, however there is no pricing or ordering information. If you want a copy I suggest using the online contact form to enquire about availability. There must have been some interest following publication because my original review lists 87,414 views.

www.RetrofittingYourHome.com

The website includes the review I produced in 2009, http://www.retrofittingyourhome.com which I have updated here.

Morrow R, 2009; A Good Home Forever; Mountain Wildfire Press, Katoomba NSW.


© FIONA CAMPBELL 1995. Cycles of energy and materials around the home.

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