Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Mudbrick Adventure

We promised to do this post about our house design way back in October last year. (Recently Geoff from Flood Street Farmlet - reminded us about this.) It's a convoluted tale so we will start at the beginning and spend the next few posts filling in details.
We spent several years pondering our house design and considered a wide range of materials and housing styles, ranging from the traditional Australian homestead with verandas all round, through to concrete earth-covered domes. To help us clarify our ideas, we spent about 12 months going on every alternative house tour we could find. This was a great way to explore possibilities. During this period we drew up the following criteria that we wanted our house to meet.
· Maximise our involvement by being owner builders to save costs and to maintain “ownership” of the process
· East-west alignment with large north facing windows to maximise solar gain
· Smaller windows on South, west and east to minimise heat loss
· Minimise fire risk by giving the house a low profile and by using low risk materials
· Eaves to exclude summer sun but allow winter sun to warm house and protect mudbricks from weather.
· Utilise at least some earth covered wall construction (a carryover from our earlier thoughts of building an earth sheltered house)
· Use thermal mass to maintain constant pleasant temperature (20 –25 degrees) and minimise energy use.
· Utilise natural ventilation and cooling pipes (stack and cross ventilation)
· Maximise natural lighting to all rooms avoiding need for lights during daylight hours
· Wet areas to be in close proximity to HWS to minimise hot water pipe distances
· Incorporate a window outlook that provides views of our bush environment
· Accommodate wheelchair access to most of house
· Plan to include provision for large concrete water tank, wood stove and wood heater
· Access between garage, pantry and rest of house
· Cathedral ceilings and exposed beams
· House to have appearance of being part of the environment- not alien to it
· Rooms to be reasonably spacious and Incorporate plenty of storage space
· Use plantation timber (not old growth forests)
· Minimise “wasted” space eg. halls
· Use materials with a low “embodied energy component”
· Adequate insulation using natural non toxic materials
· Use physical termite barriers- no poisons
· House plan to incorporate 3 bedrooms, a study/office/spare room, lounge, family room, kitchen, walk-in pantry, bathroom, toilet, laundry and garage/workshop.
· Deciduous vine covered pergola along northern wall for shade in summer but light in winter

Our solution was a mudbrick house (external and internal mudbrick walls), built on a slab with one earth sheltered wall (built with “normal” fired bricks and back filled with soil). The house and garage area is around 25 squares. A clerestory is used to bring light into the back of the house. We are very happy with the design we came up with, which meets 99% of our initial criteria.

We decided on mudbrick because:-
· They have low embodied energy
· We were planning to make the mudbricks ourselves. After we had made 80 bricks (out of the 4000 we needed) we decided to buy the rest from Barclay Bricks in Hurstbridge. Back in 1999, puddled clay bricks were only $1.65 each delivered- a very reasonable price we thought.
· They do not require great skill to lay. Slight irregularities in levels add to the “rustic charm”. We use this excuse all the time to explain imperfect lines etc.
· They have good thermal mass (but not good insulation)
· We love the texture of mudbrick wall surfaces
· Laying a few bricks puts the wall up a fair bit because of their large size
· They are fire reistant
· The density of the mudbrick adds an element of sound reduction so that activities in one room have less impact on people in another room
· By building a post and beam frame and later filling in the walls with mudbrick we could put the roof up first and then work on the walls under cover in rain, hail or shine.

In the next post we will get into the nitty gritty of construction and layout.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

2009 At Tenderbreak

Most of our posts focus on the development of our permaculture property, but every now and then we’ll add more personal bits and pieces to give a better understanding of what it means to live in this magical place.
Last year ended well with a joyous Christmas. We knew a place in the bush where escaped pinus radiata trees were growing wild. Each year we do our civic duty and remove one of these weeds for use as a Christmas Tree. Our cathedral ceilings allowed us to use trees over 5m tall. This creates two difficulties. They do not fit inside the car so they get strapped to our roof rack for the ride home (luckily not on major roads). In the photo, Heather and Sally are getting ready to lower last year’s selection to the ground. The next problem is getting them through doorways- but we solved this with some judicious pruning.

Once the tree was inside it would be placed in a pot and fastened in place with some fishing line. Then the fun part came- adding decorations. The challenge with large trees is to obtain enough decorations so that the tree doesn’t end up looking half naked. This year we were helped out in this regard by some kind people who left a large box of decorations (in very good condition) out beside the road for hard rubbish collection. Thanks to those unknown people our trees will always be superbly decorated.

Unfortunately this happy anecdote has a sad ending. Our supply of “Christmas” trees that we thought would supply us forever, were burnt out on Black Saturday. At least when the bush recovers it will not have to compete with these invasive introduced plants. But now we are on the lookout for another source of trees!
After Christmas we harvested our onions and garlic. The garlic harvest was very good. To solve the storage problem, Heather decided to plait the garlic together into long strings which we hung in our barn till needed. She wasn’t quite sure of how to plait them securely, so she checked out some websites which explained step by step how to plait a horse’s tail. This technique worked really well. She became so absorbed in the process that one plait ended up over a metre long! Now whenever we happen to pass a horse, her hands start twitching with the urge to start plaiting. (Just joking!)

Our onions were equally successful- particularly the red onions. As the photo shows, they were huge and they tasted delicious. Even if we were eating onion each day, one onion would last a week.

We grew sunflowers in our pumpkin patch to attract bees and provide some shade to the pumpkins on hot summer days. We reckon every garden should have at least 1 or 2 sunflowers- they brighten up the garden and radiate happiness. They are also a very useful source of seed for chooks- ours love them.

Most of our visitors arrive by car, because we are many kilometres from most places. A month ago though, our friend Sean decided to ride his bike over from Healesville. That’s about 20 km away over some quite steep hills and windy gravel roads. However Sean regards such a trip as just a warm up ride. He is quite addicted to long and difficult (to us) trips on his bike. Anyway Sean is a bit of a coffee aficionado, so Heather brewed him a freshly ground cup of Organic Yarra Coffee as a reward for his effort. After morning tea he hopped on his bike and rode home to his partner Leah –the long way!

In early February, Victoria was under the spell of a heatwave. Our way of turning those oppresive nights into a bit of fun was to camp down by the dam. We were in one tent, Sally was in another and Emilie was camped up closer to the house. (She may have been nervous about the wildlife moving about at night.)
We just used the inner part of the tent, which meant we could see the stars above, and because we are far from the city lights they twinkle very brightly- always awesome. We slept so well we have no idea whether kangaroos or wombats passed by- perhaps they were on tiptoes.

In this post we’ve avoided talking about Black Saturday (almost). But on two weekends in April we hosted small group tours of Tenderbreak and part of the tour involved explaining to visitors what happened, what our defences were and what changes we intend making. The photo above shows Andrew explaining the role of the dam in our permaculture design to one of these groups.

These tours have been so popular (78 people have booked so far) that we added several more dates. If you are interested in joining one of our tours, the two dates currently available are May 3rd and May 24th. Send us an email if you would like more information ( .

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tenderbreak Has a French Connection

Emilie (originally from France) has come to stay with us for a while. She is helping us out with the many tasks that need doing and from time to time treats us to the taste of French cooking. (She bakes a very tasty quiche.) This is a great way to learn about other cultures and their view of the world. In return we provide accommodation and share our knowledge and skills- just like the WWOOFER program.

During our dry summer Emilie helped us keep the water up to all the plants. Each morning we were up early, trying to get it done before it got too hot. I am starting to sweat just thinking about it.

The combination of heat and damp promoted rapid plant growth, but the weeds enjoyed these conditions too. The mulch kept most of them down, but occasionally pulling by hand was required to stop them overtaking the crops. The photo shows Sally and Emilie getting stuck into the weeds around the corn plants in January.
Of course the day is not all work- there is time for relaxing too. Emilie enjoys artistic pursuits and decided to decorate the egg cartons that we use for our eggs that we sell at the Healesville Organic Market. We tell customers that they are paying for the classy egg carton, and we‘re throwing in the eggs for free. Each week we quickly sell out of eggs- we are not sure whether its because of the artistically decorated cartons or the quality of the eggs inside.
A box of our potatoes can also be seen on the table. We had a bumper harvest this year. We dug up around 70kg of mostly goodsized spuds. The ones in the box were mainly Ruby Lou.
Emilie also enjoys nature and quiet contemplation. Here she is having a nap down by our dam.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Petty's Apple Festival & Tenderbreak Tours

Like hundreds of others, we attended the annual apple festival at Petty’s Orchard in Templestowe on March 31st. There was a wide variety of stalls, displays and activities for people to view. Some of the highlights were tours of the heritage orchard with hundreds of varieties of apples, very informative talks by Freddie the “Snake Man”, talks about heritage apples and the yummy tasting tent where you can “taste test” a whole range of apples. This enables you to choose varieties to plant that you know you like. There was plenty of healthy organic food available for lunch- our favourite was Janet’s large plate of delicious organic pasta with pesto.

There were several displays by permaculture groups and stalls selling plants. We couldn’t resist buying a cool climate banana plant for our sister-in-law who uses the bananas and leaves in her Thai cooking. Snake Gully Cider had demonstrations of cider making and for those with a sweet tooth, John the ice cream man sold delicious organic ice creams. The photo above shows our stall (the one with the yellow and red flags). Thankyou to Belinda ( ) for providing this photo and the one at left of the "Tasting tent".

As we have done for the past few years we had a stall selling some of our veggies and our friend’s bird & rat proof chook feeder (We’ll do a post on this great product soon). Our daughter, Sally (Mustang Sal’s Nature Photography) had a great display of some of her framed photos and the photo cards that she creates.

It was a very successful day with Sally selling quite a few cards and we sold most of the veggies. We also had a chance to speak with dozens of lovely people, many of whom had already been on one of the tours we run at Tenderbreak Permaculture Farm. This is the main reason we go to festivals and markets like this. We love chatting with people about the social, environmental and economic issues that have arisen over the past few decades and discussing what we can do to resolve these. We share what we have learned on our journey towards a more sustainable life, and love hearing about other people’s experiences.

The markets also provide an opportunity to promote our “Permaculture In Action” tours. Our April 5th tour was booked out with 15 people attending. Although we advertise the tours as going from 1:30 to 4:00pm there was so much to see and talk about, we finished up around 5pm. Our May 17th tour is close to being booked out, so we have decided to add additional tours on MAY 3rd and MAY 24th. If you would like to attend one of these tours contact us and we will book you in and send you a map showing how to get here. If these dates are unsuitable send us your email address and we’ll put you on our mailing list and keep you informed about future tour dates. If you would like more information about the tours we can send you a pamphlet with all the details.

Congratulations to Pete the Permie and the other organisers for a wonderfully interesting and informative day at Petty’s. We are looking forward to next year’s festival on the last Sunday in March- make sure you put it in your calendar now.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

More Thoughts for the Royal Commission

As we explained in our last post, we are being dogged by questions and thoughts about the fires. There is no way we can prevent wildfire events. They are integral to this part of the world and will continue to occur, possibly more frequently and with even more ferocity.

In our submission to the Royal Commission we painted a picture of a potential scenario that could easily occur if the circumstances of Black Saturday were just a bit different. What if it had happened on a week day, and spot fires (or arsonists) had lit fires closer to outer suburban areas like Lilydale, Wonga Park or towns around the Dandenong Ranges. The fires in Canberra a few years ago set a terrible example. If the fire had taken hold in a suburban area it would have spread from house to house with dire consequences. Apart from the flames, residents would have to cope with massive amounts of dense smoke. The roads would be clogged with panicking people trying to get home, others trying to flee, parents collecting school children and all this happening during peak homeward bound traffic. Fires in industrial areas could add explosions and poisonous fumes to the mix. Power outages would cause traffic lights to fail, gas lines could ignite and water pressure would drop dramatically. Would people know what to do and where to go? Emergency services would be stretched to the limit.

Some people may think we are being over the top, but we believe this scenario needs to be carefully thought through. If we do not develop strategies in readiness for such extreme situations, the results would be too terrible to contemplate.

One strategy that would allow communities to be better prepared is for the government to declare extreme days (like 7th February) an “Emergency Situation Day” on the prior evening. Like an advanced level fire ban day, this would trigger certain behaviours in fire prone areas and suburbs. Schools would be closed, businesses would be asked to consider closing, companies would be asked to provide leave to employees who live or work in the affected areas or who are CFA members. All this would happen early in the day. Residents could follow a generic fire plan which lists steps and precautions they need to take and the location of the nearest safe haven.

An emergency declaration would enable people to arrange their day without panic. Those leaving could leave early. Those staying to defend could stay home and prepare. Volunteer fire fighting personnel could ready themselves. The fact that this would happen only occasionally and normal daily life is disrupted would be a clear signal, that that particular day is considered extremely dangerous. It would force people to at least seriously consider their situation and hopefully make some sensible decisions early in the day.

In our society we have lost touch with the environment and its warning signals- cocooned in our homes with air conditioning and electrical entertainment and connected to the world via a computer. We need to regain the ability to be aware of times when nature is setting up a disaster scenario and to take action to protect our loved ones and our communities before it occurs.

Some people have called for forced evacuations in times of extreme crisis. We object most strongly to this idea. There are a myriad of problems with this approach. Forcing people onto roads in a continually changing wildfire event is far too dangerous. Often the people organising the evacuation are not familiar with the local area. Lack of local knowledge can lead to dangerous advice.

In these highly emotionally charged disasters the last thing anyone needs is conflict, which is what would result if police tried to evacuate residents who were determined to stay. In the days after Black Saturday, Heather was told she could not pass a police roadblock on the Melba Hwy to return home. She was 5 km from home, had travelled out along our access road an hour earlier and knew it was safe. The police officer did not know the area and did not fully understand the intent of his orders which was to prevent people travelling up the highway. Our side road was perfectly safe at that stage. His obstinacy caused her much distress and she was at the point of driving through his roadblock. Fortunately he listened to reason in the end. By all means give warnings to people, but in a free society we must retain the right to make our own decisions.
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