Friday, November 6, 2009

Our New Hothouse

For many years we have been intending to build a hot house. Up till now we have made do with plastic bags and bottles over seed trays and we have kept vulnerable plants in the house during cold spells. But now we can look after our more sensitive plants in style- in our brand new hot house. Well it’s new in that it has just been erected, but in fact it is actually quite old as it is made from reused materials that we have gathered from a variety of sources.

The hardest part was levelling the site. It didn’t look much work when it was staked out, but it took 2 full days to cut the area level, and drag over logs to make a retaining wall for where the ground has been built up. The photo shows our Heather and our friend Ilya helping us do the lifting of the wall frames.

The walls came from an old poultry farm and have sheet metal on their lower half and wire netting fabric on their upper half. We used old recycled timber to build the frame for the roof, and the doorway. Covering the whole lot is solar weave plastic.

We have chosen this type of structure because we had most of the materials on hand. It also enables us to make the hothouse rabbit and snake proof (the hot conditions could be very attractive to our reptile friends). Having the metal part at ground level is advantageous because this is the area most vulnerable to damage from tools, mowers etc.

We’ve connected the plastic in such a way as to be able to roll up the sides so we can moderate temperatures as the weather warms up. In summer we will take the plastic right off so plants can keep growing without being “cooked”. This should also extend the life of the plastic.

The hothouse is quite big, measuring 3.6m x 7.2m and enables us to use it for a variety of purposes. We are using half of it for growing plants in the ground and the other half for growing our own seedlings and cuttings. Two old discarded portable BBQ’s put out for roadside collection have made good potting benches. Half of the floor is paved with old pavers (free) from a nursery that was putting down asphalt instead. These provide some thermal mass which should moderate temperatures on cold nights.

In the earthen area we have planted 6 tomatoes, 8 basil plants, 8 egg plants, 6 bell peppers, 6 long sweet yellow capsicums 2 German pickling cucumbers and one perennial chilli. We have also planted a cool climate banana and half a dozen lemon grasses.

The whole design was a bit of an experiment and has required many minor adjustments as the project has proceeded, but seems to be working well now. It even withstood gale force type winds that blew through Victoria in early spring.

Who knows, we may even set up a couple of deck chairs and enjoy the warmth ourselves on some of those freezing Victorian winter days.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tim & Shelly

This year has been the first time we have formally taken on helpers at Tenderbreak Farm (like in the woofer program). Earlier in the year Emilie stayed with us for 5 months, then Michelle and Ilya came for short stays and now Tim and Shelly have been staying with us since early September. All of these young people have been a joy to be with, and have helped out with a multitude of tasks.

Tim and Shelly are from the “Land of the Long White Cloud” (New Zealand), and have just started out on an Australian adventure. Whilst at Tenderbreak, they have been extremely busy planting potatoes, native trees and other plants, gathering firewood, weeding, fencing, helping out with tours and at our market stall, renovating our garden paths, setting up for the Open Studios event, mulching and many other tasks. They have also used their culinary skills (they dream of opening their own magical cafe one day) to create some wonderful vegetarian meals and delights for us, including the Midnight Xpresso Chocolate Cake –for Andrew’s birthday (See recipe below). On top of all of that they have entertained us with their music (recorded and live) and with their incredible fire dancing skills (See last post).

However what makes these visits memorable and special is the bond that develops between hosts and visitors. As with our earlier guests, Tim and Shelly are easy to get along with, they blend in so well they are like part of our family. It is a real pleasure to sit around the dinner table eating delicious home grown meals with a glass of wine (or home-made ginger beer) and enjoying each other’s company. Thankyou to Tim and Shelly for sharing our journey with us.

Ingredients (Dry)

3 cups plain white flour
1½ cups cocoa
2½ cups sugar
3 teaspn baking soda
3 teaspn baking powder
Ingredients (Wet)
500ml soy milk
1 cup frozen berries
2 tablespn Instant Coffee
1½ cups olive oil
1 tin coconut cream

Mix all dry ingredients together in one bowl and all wet ingredients in another bowl
Unify all ingredients in one bowl
Line tin with tin foil and grease with oil. Ensure there is enough room for the cake to rise as this mixture can rise more than other cake recipes.
Put into oven (160⁰C) for around 45 min or until a knife comes out clean
Decorate with cocoa icing and banana or berries in the middle. Once cool the cake can be sliced in half to make 2 cakes or stacked to make a delicious tall cake. Yum Yum!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sixty Years Young

August to October are celebratory months at our place. We have 9 birthdays to celebrate within a six week period. Luckily it’s spring time and there’s lots of work required in the garden to burn up some of the calories we put on over this time.

This year was a particularly big one, with Andrew joining that illustrious group known as “seniors”. (This term applies to citizens over the age of 60.) Andrew actually has been looking forward to reaching this milestone, partly because he reckons he is now an “elder” of the tribe and his wisdom, advice and opinions should be sought after, but mainly because he can now take advantage of low cost public transport, free events for the elderly and discounts all over the place.

This year there was a little (not so little actually) surprise that came along with the annual celebration. Normally in our family the big joy of such events is the right to select one’s favourite selection of edible and quaffable goodies for a celebratory meal and enjoy these in the company of the family. On the actual day everything went as normal and a great time was had by all.

However on the following Saturday with great secrecy and stealth, Heather had arranged a much larger gathering of friends and extended family to gather. With all watches synchronised, this group waited down the drive, whilst Andrew was lured down to the dam on the pretext that a turtle had been spotted on the edge of the water. As he searched in vain for the little reptile, a long line of cars wound its way up the drive. His first reaction was that somehow he had posted a wrong date on the web for one of our tours. Then when they got close enough to recognise faces, he put one and one together and realised it was all part of some secret plot. By the time everyone made it up into the house, furniture had been re-arranged, tables had been covered with food and drink and instead of having a rather dull afternoon (it was a wet and cold Saturday) in front of the fire we had a thoroughly enjoyable time with great company and a wonderful feast.

When night fell we were entertained by some spectacular fire dancing by our woofer friends Shelly and Tim. It was certainly a birthday to remember. The big question is “What are we going to do about Heather’s 60th next year? Hmmmmmm!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tenderbreak Permaculture Tours

Monthly tours of Tenderbreak Permaculture Farm will continue for the rest of the year.

Bookings are required and tours will be held on:-
Tour 1 Sunday, October 18th
Tour 2 Sunday, November 8th
Tour 3 Sunday, December 6th
Tours run 1:30pm to 4:30pm and include afternoon tea.

In the past 12 months over 1000 people have attended one of our events (Some have even been twice.) Our tours are suitable for anyone with an interest in permaculture, organic gardening, passive solar house design, tank water, mudbrick building, property design and layout, chooks and ducks, solar power, grey water systems and sustainable living. In fact our tours are a bit like doing a mini Introduction to Permaculture Course.

Part of the tour looks at defensive strategies against bushfires. The fires of Black Saturday burnt most of our 96 acres, but we were able to save our house and most of our infrastructure. We can now give an account of what aspects of our fire plan worked well and what needs to be improved.

Although our property is a large bush block, we provide information and ideas that are suitable for both rural and suburban dwellers. The size of the groups is limited to ensure there is plenty of scope for questions and discussion. Other dates are available for group bookings.
Contact us for more details or for bookings at

Friday, September 25, 2009


The wonderful Yarra Valley Open Studio inaugural weekend event has now come and gone. Considering it was the first time, it all went very well and smoothly. Although Sally’s Gallery was one of the more distant of the galleries we still enjoyed visits by dozens of people who were exploring the work of artists in this region. The many enthusiastic and supportive comments, made all the work and preparation worthwhile. The positive reaction has inspired Sally to keep the gallery open for a while longer. At present Sally has decided to open the gallery on the following Sundays (and other days by appointment).

Mustang Sal Nature Photography Studio will be open from 10am to 5pm:-
Sunday October 25th
Sunday November 1st

If you are up this way on the above dates you are welcome to drop in and enjoy Sal’s photograhic display of over 50 framed photos plus hundreds of photocards. We’ll have the kettle on and you can also join us for a hot cuppa, and if you are interested have a wander around our permaculture garden. If you have the time, you are welcome to bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the peace and tranquility down by our dam.

We are located at Dixon’s Creek, in the beautiful Yarra Valley (about 60 km from Melbourne GPO). Email us for a map and directions if you need it. If you know of anyone else who might be interested please pass this information, (or our blog address) on to them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mustang Sal - Nature Photographer

If you have been reading this blog for a while you will have noticed that many of the photographs are outstanding. Most of these were taken by our daughter Sally. In 2001 she did a short photography course and enjoyed it so much, it became a passionate hobby. After a while she developed a special interest in nature photography and soon amassed a large portfolio of photos taken around our place or on some of our camping trips. In recent years she has started turning her work into photo-cards which she sells at the Healesville Organic Market and our open days. They are also available from

Sally joined the Yarra Valley Photography Club and won several of their club competitions. Her work has also featured in our local newspaper. This year Sal was invited to become part of the Yarra Valley Open Studios project which runs from 18-20 September. On this weekend each artist will open their “studio” to the public. Visitors can travel from studio to studio and view artists in action or see their work. For further information see below

If you would like to view Mustang Sal’s cards visit Healesville Organic Market (outside the railway station) any Saturday morning from 8.30am to 1 pm.

OPEN STUDIOS WEEKEND September 18, 19, 20
More than 40 artists in the Yarra Valley area are opening their studios to the public over this weekend. Visitors can spend an afternoon, a day or a whole weekend exploring the rich diversity of art as it is made by Yarra Valley artists. The program includes artists working in a diverse range of mediums, from painters to potters, from goldsmiths to photographers.

For this weekend we are setting up a gallery here at Tenderbreak to display Mustang Sal’s Nature Photography. Mustang Sal’s Studio will be open from 10am to 5pm on each day, and entry is free. Sally will have handmade cards and framed and unframed photos on display and for sale. You are welcome to come along and see her work and make purchases if you wish.

If you have got enough time you are welcome to enjoy one of our “Tenderbreak Teas”. We will have a range of teas (regular, chai, hibiscus, herbal and others), freshly brewed Yarra Organic Coffee and scones/cake available for purchase. You are also welcome to bring out a picnic lunch and wander around our permaculture garden.

More details including descriptions of all artists, their location and a map are available at To reach our gallery, travel north from Yarra Glen along the Melba Highway. After DeBortoli Winery turn right into Old Toolangi Rd., and follow the Open Studios signs. Email us at for a map showing exactly how to get here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


In our last post we had a bit of a rant about the incredible amount of wastage in our food supply system. There are alternatives out there (perhaps even close to you) that restore ethics into food supply. One of these is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

CSA’s are designed to restore fairness, health and quality to our food growing systems. Most farmers have a “boom or bust” type existence. In good years there is an abundance of food (farm prices are reduced because of an over supplied market) and in bad years there are crop failures (and income is reduced accordingly).

Farmers have to pay their costs up front (seed, water, ploughing etc) using borrowed money which eats into whatever profits they make. On top of this, the big buyers (supermarkets and processors) play farmers off against each other to gain the cheapest price possible. Whilst this may lead to cheaper prices (but not always) at the checkout, it has many serious negative effects. Farm incomes do not provide a fair return to the farmer and this can lead to economic, social, environmental and personal problems.

Many farmers are forced to use farming methods that lower costs or increase size, but result in poor quality food, soil depletion and environmental damage. There is also a huge amount of waste from the large farms that supply the mass market. Supermarkets demand that produce be of a uniform size, shape and colour. Of course nature doesn’t work like that, so vegetables that do not meet the required “standard” are often discarded. When food is wasted we are also wasting all the resources (water, fuel, labour etc) that went into producing it. The overriding concern of factory farm type production is not so much on quality and flavour and service to a local community, but on quantity and appearance (this is what modern consumers supposedly demand) and on profits.

How CSA's Work.
Members of the CSA pay an annual membership fee to a local farmer to cover the cost of production in advance, and in return they receive an equitable share of the farm’s harvest via a weekly box.
Both grower and consumer benefit from CSA's:-
• Consumers share the risks with the farmer. Communities are more resilient when consumers and producers understand and support each other
• The relationship allows feedback so that the farmer responds to the needs of members
• As the food is locally grown, it is fresher, and has very low food miles embedded in it (refrigeration, transport and storage).
• Consumers have a direct connection with their food supply, ensuring the use of ethical organic methods
• Many CSA’s encourage consumers to participate in the growing process. There may be opportunities for low income families to obtain their food at a cheaper rate in exchange for labour.
• Food security is enhanced because the community is not dependent on some distant supplier who has no obligation to maintain supply. Costs cannot be manipulated by profiteers whose only interest in food supply is making as much money as they can.
• CSA’s lead to far less waste in terms of packaging and selection of only uniform sized products
• CSA’s bring ethics, community, relationships and quality food back into the food supply chain

CSA related Websites
If you would like to know more here are some starting points:- has an excellent summary of how CSA’s work and lists benefits for consumers, farmers and the environment In this interview the farmer outlines the benefits, particularly for the community as a whole.

We know of 3 CSA’s operating in Yarra Ranges Shire. These are:-.
• Little Feet Farm CSA run by Stuart and Luna (pictured above) in the Yarra Junction Area and can be found at
• Amy & Luc operate their CSA in the Healesville area. Contact Amy or Luc at
• Darryl runs Callavale Farm Fresh CSA at Monbulk. You can contact Daryl at
If you know of schemes in other areas we would be happy to publicise them.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Here are some shocking statistics!Australians throw out three million tonnes of food every year – the equivalent of 145 kilograms for each and every one of us.
A 2005 study by The Australia Institute estimated that food waste was costing Australians $5.3 billion per year.
Environmental advocacy group Planet Ark looked at how much food was being wasted by Australian households. They found as much as 25 per cent of food ended up in the rubbish bin.
Food waste:-
• Is a waste of money
• Is a waste of all resources that went into producing, packaging, transporting and storing the food - water, nutrients, labour, electricity and oil
• contributes to landfill, and greenhouse gases as it breaks down
• from supermarkets is often quite edible- either has damaged packaging or past a use by date
• is unethical

There has been a recent tendency for households to purchase supersized fridges. At the same time the number of people in each household has been gradually shrinking. As with many developments in our society, it just doesn’t make sense. Admittedly Australians are eating more than they ever did, but that’s causing many of us to be overweight. Having a bigger fridge full of tempting treats does not help one little bit. Of course having a bigger fridge also means you need a bigger kitchen and ultimately a bigger house. As these monoliths are on 24 hours a day, they use up enormous amounts of electricity giving us a bigger electricity bill. And that also generally means more coal being burnt to generate that extra power.
Do we need a big fridge?
Possibly, if you have a very large number of people to feed, but if you have an average sized household I have my doubts. My guess is that the bigger fridge just means more food gets lost at the back. Most people shop on a regular basis and really do not need to keep masses of perishable food on hand for weeks at a time. Storing food for weeks in the fridge or freezer adds to its cost.
In our situation we have a limited supply of electricity (solar power) so we have opted to go with a relatively small gas fridge, and it serves our household of 5 adults very well. It enforces a discipline of common sense. We have found alternative ways of storing perishable foods. Here are some of them:-
• Roots crops such as beetroot, carrots, parsnips store really well for many months if left in the ground- they even continue to grow
• Onions and garlic store well if hung in a dry coolish place
• Pumpkins and potatoes once harvested will keep for many months if cured well and are stored in a dry cool dark place.
• Lettuces, silver beet, celery and other greens can be harvested a few leaves at a time when needed
• Most fruit will keep for a while on the tree and then for several weeks if stored well
• We collect fresh eggs from our chooks and these will keep for several weeks if stored in a cool pantry.
• Many foods are easily dried, bottled or preserved.
• Another option for food that just needs to be kept cool but not cold, is a “cool cupboard”. This is a well insulated cupboard with a pipe bringing cool air from under the house into the bottom. At the top is an outlet pipe allowing air to be vented. Warmer air rises out of the top vent drawing cool air in at the bottom. The continual movement of cool air keeps food cool.

An ACF study found that food consumption is responsible for 28% of the average Australian's greenhouse gas pollution, whereas personal and public transport accounts for only 10.5%. So, growing even some of our own food can make a great a contribution to reducing our carbon footprint.
There is much publicity about big picture items such as turning off lights and appliances when not in use, but there is much to be gained for our hip pocket and the environment by just being a bit more thoughtful with our food purchases.
Let's all minimise food waste. If there is leftover food, feed it to chooks so it can be converted into eggs, or compost it so the nutrients can enrich soils, but please do not throw it into the rubbish. Food is too good to waste.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


After a short break over winter we are recommencing monthly tours of Tenderbreak Permaculture Farm. In the past 12 months over 1000 people have attended one of our events (Some have even been twice).

Bookings are required and tours will be held on:-
Tour 1 Sunday, AUGUST 9th
Tour 2 Sunday, September 6th
Both tours run 1:30pm to 4:00pm and include afternoon tea.

Our tours are suitable for anyone with an interest in permaculture, organic gardening, passive solar house design, tank water, mudbrick building, property design and layout, chooks and ducks, solar power, grey water systems and sustainable living. In fact our tours are a bit like doing a mini Introduction to Permaculture Course.

Part of the tour looks at defensive strategies against bushfires. The fires of Black Saturday burnt most of our 96 acres, but we were able to save our house and most of our infrastructure. We can now give an account of what aspects of our fire plan worked well and what needs to be improved.

Although our property is a large bush block, we provide information and ideas that are suitable for both rural and suburban dwellers. The size of the groups is limited to ensure there is plenty of scope for questions and discussion. Other dates are available for group bookings.
Contact us for more details or for bookings at

Monday, July 20, 2009

Fires Aftermath

It’s now 5 months since Black Saturday, but it still seems like a bad dream. It is hard getting used to the blackened trunks, bare branches and a cooked landscape. Every time we return home, a sense of sadness arises within us when the burnt forest comes into view. This feeling is only partially offset by the gradual rebirth of our environment.

Recovery of bush/animals
The tenacity of Australia’s forests is amazing. The tree ferns and grass trees were sending out new shoots within a couple of weeks and the green really stands out against the black backdrop. Many of the eucalypts are now sending out side-shoots, with some clothed in green shoots from top to bottom. Of course there are many that will never recover and will stand for years like black sentinels reminding us of Black Saturday. The forest floor is gradually turning green with a carpet of mosses and young shoots starting to hide the ash.

Amazingly some of the wildlife managed to survive, but they are not out of the woods yet (pun intended). They survived the fire, but can they survive the loss of habitat and food source? We are doing our best to help by doing regular food drops of approved food around our place – hopefully it will get them through. So far we have seen a few wombats, a couple of echidnas, one baby snake, a small mob of kangaroos, a handful of wallabies and two lyrebirds.

Odd stuff
Many people have commented that at least we now have tons of firewood. Strangely this is true for next year and into the future, but the bulk of blackened wood on the ground is green- that’s why it didn’t burn during the fires. Any dry wood (including a few piles we were saving for future firewood) burnt very well when the fires arrived. Fortunately we managed to locate enough seasoned wood to get us through this winter, but many other people may have found it more difficult.

Flue Cleaning
One consequence of using wood stoves/heaters is the need to keep the flue clean. We have aimed to do this annually, but for various reasons have left this messy job for two years. So in May we donned our overalls, dragged out the flue brush, climbed onto the roof and gave the flue a brushing. We were pleasantly surprised by the relatively small amount of soot that dropped down. Our guess is that due to the very dry nature of the wood we use (usually it’s been seasoned for 2 years or more), it burns very cleanly leaving little residue behind. From now on we’ll clean out the flues before winter every odd numbered year.

Wood Fired Appliances
Winter has well and truly arrived and with that, the need for heating. Over recent years wood has received much “bad press” as a use for fuel. In the suburbs a poorly operated system or one not using dry fuel can cause discomfort for neighbours, but in rural areas there are many advantages over other fuels.
The Australian Greenhouse Office, in their brochure "Global Warming Cool It!" lists the following Greenhouse gases (pollution) per unit of heat
• “Natural gas produces 0.31 kg.
• LPG gas produces 0.34 kg.
• Electricity Aust. Average 1.00 kg...
• Wood produces 0.00 kg.”

The article continues: "Carbon dioxide from burning wood is not counted, as wood is a renewable resource: a natural cycle exists in which carbon is captured by growing trees, then released by burning or decaying and again captured by growing trees." Our energy utilities would have us believe that are at the forefront of environmental protection. The truth is fossil fuels are ruining the environment and our health........ This site also outlines some serious health dangers related to the use of gas fuelled heaters. See for more information.

Wood is the perfect fuel if you are replanting trees to replace the wood you use.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Winter at Tenderbreak

We cleared vegetation off our dam wall and resolved to keep it free of trees. Roots from large trees can penetrate the wall in search of water and this could lead to an empty dam. At times we have made attempts to get the job done, but it was just too big.

However this year the fires did half of it for us. The photo shows a small section. All we had to do was grub out the burnt trunks of perhaps 200 saplings. It still took two full days but at least it’s done and all we have to do is to regularly cutback growth to prevent trees getting established. Time will tell if we can keep up our resolve to keep regrowth down.

Whilst doing this job we took the opportunity to create a meandering path which leads to the gate valve (previously we had to battle through dense vegetation to get there). It also leads to the gully below the dam providing a pleasant bushwalk.

Another job we have been intending to do for many years was to build a hot house. We have now collected a pile of second-hand material for this purpose and started excavating the site. Hopefully this project should be completed in the next few weeks.

We’ve harvested around 70kg spuds and 80 pumpkins (Butternuts, Jarrahdales, Queensland Blues and a handful of unknown heritage). We continue to pick lettuce, celery, carrots, beetroots, turnips, silverbeet, wong bok, chicory, parsnips, daikon and many herbs. The brassicas are all doing well. We are enjoying the taste of freshly picked brussel sprouts and will soon be able to tuck into caulies, cabbages and brocccoli. Our focus in winter is on garlic, onions, (both planted in May) and broadbeans (for food as well as a green manure crop).

Our passionfruit gave us a pleasant surprise. This was the first year it provided a crop and we have been patiently waiting for them to turn purple. In the end we gave up, tried one and found it to be ripe and sweet. Apparently we have a yellow fruiting variety and are now enjoying them “passionately”.

In the orchard we have started pruning fruit trees, divided and transplanted some rhubarb plants and have prepared spots for a few more fruit trees. We’ve also cut down a few older acacias, cut back others and used our mulcher to turn the prunings into a big pile of mulch.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


David is a woodworker friend of ours, who manufactures and sells a variety of wooden toys and other products. For some time he has been working on a chook feeder design that will prevent birds, rats and mice from stealing the chook food. We are pleased to announce that he has now developed a bird, rat and mouse proof Contented Chook Feeder.

The chook food is placed in a hopper which is covered by a lid. When the chooks step on a flat plate, a clever lever mechanism lifts the lid giving chooks access to the food. The storage hopper is large enough to store several kilos of food, allowing owners to go away for a weekend in the safe knowledge that their chooks will have a supply of food available. Of course they will also need a supply of clean water.

It takes around 2 weeks for chooks to learn how the feeder works and to get comfortable with the device. Two or three chooks can eat together, but it is also suitable for use with larger numbers of birds. We use our unit to feed 12 hens by having at least 2 days supply of feed available in the unit. The result is that hens go to the feeder when they are hungry- usually one or two at any one time.

The feeder needs to be kept under cover. This is partly to preserve the timber components, but also to ensure dampness does not get into the chook food. If feeders are left exposed to the elements the chook food can absorb moisture and go mouldy.

The units are individually handmade and there is quite a bit of work in each one. For these reasons David can only make a limited number each week, subsequently there will a short wait for orders to be filled.
David has just commenced manufacturing these units, and orders or expressions of interest can be placed with us at our Healesville Organic Market stall (Outside the old railway station every Saturday morning). We have a demo model on display at the market. If you would like more information contact us, at and we can email more details and extra photos. Another alternative is to ring David on mob. 0420 528 606.

Some of his other great products include possum boxes, a great little art stool with built in blackboard, wooden hobby horses, and many other educational toys

Monday, May 25, 2009

Would We Do It Again?

Would we do it again? No, not at our age now. We have done it once, enjoyed the journey and now we are happy to live out our days enjoying the fruit of our labour. However if it was a question of the clock being wound back would we go down the owner builder path again? We certainly would. We thoroughly recommend that everyone at least consider the owner building process. If you do, we found the following helpful

· Undertaking some major renovation tasks at our previous house provided us with some building experience
· Choosing subcontractors wisely (recommendations are useful). The cheapest is not always the best. Look after subcontractors (cups of tea etc). A good relationship will often yield good advice and valuable information. We may have just been lucky but every one of our subcontractors did an excellent job, fitted in with us and were very helpful. Many contractors are happy for you to reduce costs by doing some of the work yourself.
· Having access to paid long service leave enabled a lot of work to be completed in a shorter period of time
· We contracted a qualified builder (Rod Sheppard) to help us erect the frame, and we worked as his labourers. This saved us money, gave us the chance to learn skills on the job, and meant this complex stage was completed in a quarter of the time it would have taken us to do by ourselves.
· Attend as many house tours as you can, to get ideas for your own project and to learn from other people’s experiences.
· Publications such as Earth Garden, Renew Magazine, Grass Roots and Owner Builder frequently have useful articles and useful contacts. These and many helpful books can be found in local libraries.
· Improve your bbq skills so that friends look forward to visiting (and helping when you need an extra hand). This doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.
· Learn as much as you can about good design. By this we don’t mean the so called “good style” demonstrated in coffee table magazines, but design that works for you and the planet over the long term.

In conclusion we recommend the completion of a Permaculture Design Certificate. This course introduces all the basic principles and concepts needed to develop plans for an energy efficient, environmentally friendly house which integrates with other infrastructure.

Here is a list of tradesmen/contractors we used or know, and whom we would happily recommend:
· Rod Sheppard - Marysville –survived the fires (Builder, building designer, draughtsman, building timber supplier) Top photo
· Kevin Jones -Chirnside Park (Very skilled and knowledgeable. Did our excavations, driveways and dams) Bottom photo
· Bill Hayes -Lilydale (Plumber & House fire defence sprinkler systems)
· Stephen Cook- Glen Iris (Top class Electrician)
· Glen Morris of SolarQuip Healesville (Solar Supplier & Installer)
· Regis Bezencon Healesville (Solar Supplier & Installer)
· Janelle Murphy of Australian 5Star -Bayswater (Energy Rater who will work through the process with clients, and Insulation consultant)
· Alan Duke of A&A Wormfarm Waste Systems - Hastings. Disposal of all grey and black waste water. Middle photo

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Owner Building - Does it save money?

Building your own home can save a lot of money, but there are pitfalls and traps for the unwary. Many houses have been seriously damaged because of inadequate termite protection. Poor foundations or mortar mixes have caused brick walls to crack. Financial institutions may make life hard for owner builders. Subcontractors can be a wonderful help or they can cause a myriad of problems. There are dozens of things that can go wrong with such a large and complex undertaking. Even professional builders occasionally end up in disastrous situations.

We have learned a couple of big lessons on our journey. Building a house is a far bigger project than we imagined. Instead of taking 1 or 2 years, it is now 10 years since we began and we are still finishing the place off. We completed 75% of it within 2 years (enough to get our occupancy permit) and then got distracted by our real love- developing our gardens, orchard etc. From this though, we learned that enjoying the journey is far more important than reaching the destination.

Building is also much more expensive than we thought. As owner builders there is no fixed price contract. Generally you pay as you go, and boy do you pay. Perhaps we were naive, but our total costs were over double what we imagined they would be. This was partly because of lack of knowledge (lack of research). What is particularly easy to overlook is the myriad of small things that by themselves don’t seem much (eg bolts, tiles, taps, nails, paint, door knobs, locks, window furnishings etc.) Budget increases were also partly due to inflation. Our plans were approved in 1997, but by the time we started building in 1999 inflation had increased prices. On top of this, the newly introduced GST increased prices a further 10% by the time we were ready to purchase most of our major fittings.

Obviously owner building has potential to save the cost of all the labour that owners put into the job. There are also other possible savings to be gained from paying as you go. If you can get away with a lower (or no) bank loan, you avoid paying large amounts in interest. The downside is that if you lack tradesman skills, the job takes much longer.

As described above, savings are possible, but total costs depend more on the size of the house. Labour costs are only a small proportion of construction costs. However I have read articles in Owner Builder magazine where people have built small cottages for under $20,000. These people have usually used second hand and lightweight materials in their construction. Although mudbricks can be low cost if you make them yourself, your pocket suffers when you pay for the slab, which needs very strong beams to support the weight of the walls.

The cheapest form of owner building is to buy an established house, get it transported to your land and then renovate and retrofit it to meet your needs. A friend of ours did this, used contractors to do most of the reconstruction work, and saved a good deal of money. We’ll do a post on her experience soon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

House Design Details

Once we had decided on a mudbrick house, the next stage was to sort out the nitty gritty of design. We drew up plans ourselves, taking care to integrate as many of our criteria as possible. The whole process was a matter of compromise and adjustment and aimed at reaching a final result which would best meet our needs, taking into account factors such as cost, personal preference and perceived significance, to reach what we considered the best acceptable outcome.

The house is basically rectangular in shape with kitchen, lounge and master bedroom to the north with large windows giving a view over our front yard, dam and down the drive. On the southern side are 2 other bedrooms, family room, laundry, bathroom and toilet. There are cathedral ceilings throughout, except for the utility areas which have a lower ceiling to allow for an attic space above. The kitchen, lounge and family room are open plan, which has proved very useful when we are hosting large groups (we’ve had up to 80 people inside).

Thermal mass provided by mudbrick walls, concrete slab and earth sheltered eastern wall heats and cools slowly, acting to moderate the internal temperature and making the home comfortable to live in all year round. The wood heater is only necessary on the coldest of days, but is used to create a ‘cosy’ atmosphere on other days.

Cross ventilation is obtained via windows to south and north in our open plan design. Vertical ventilation is created by low air intake from vents and windows and high air exit points in the clerestorey and high vents.

A Stanley Wood Stove is our main cooking appliance, heats all our water and provides some heating to the house. The flue passes through the wall into our HWS cupboard. This reduces the amount of heat coming from the stove in summer and makes the HWS area ideal for use as a drying cupboard. The hot water supply is gravity fed to taps using a 5m head from the header tank located within the ceiling space.

We’ve endeavoured to use natural materials to minimise chemical release from glues, plastics etc. Radial sawn timber is used extensively internally and externally as a wall cladding above windows and doors. The curves of the boards are perfect match for the flowing lines of the mudbrick. Radial sawn timber is a renewable resource, aesthetic and the milling process uses the whole log with little waste (unlike square cut boards).
Cypress macrocarpa is used for the frame. This is a plantation grown timber which is easy to work with, comparatively light, and contains oils that give it some resistance to insect attack.
These have been constructed to exclude summer sun but allow deep penetration into the house by the lower winter sun. They also protect the mudbrick walls from excessive rain.

Large built-in-robes provide storage space in each bedroom, a walk in pantry will have extensive specialised shelving and storage areas (for storing produce, home-made products etc.) and the roof space above wet areas has been built into an attic. We plan to build a cool cupboard in the pantry to negate the need for larger refrigerator.

The “A&A Wormfarm Waste System" processes our “grey and black” water. The water and solids flow into a below ground tank by gravity. A filter in the base holds back the solids which are broken down by aerobic microbes and worm activity. Liquids containing worm castings and minute particles of solids are pumped to absorption trenches. In the future, the liquids will be filtered through reed beds. The captured nutrients will be used to grow biomass as an additional source of composting material and the filtered water will irrigate fruit and nut trees.

After chatting to a qualified energy rater, we believe that our design would not reach the 5 star energy rating that has been in use for the past couple of years. If this is the case, it is proof that the current computer program used to rate houses is unsatisfactory as its calculations rely too much on insulation qualities and do not consider the full benefits of thermal mass.

The thermal mass in the house maintains comfortable temperatures year round. In winter, it rarely gets below 16⁰C, even when there are frosts outside (the Yarra Valley is known for heavy frosts). We generally start using the wood heater occasionally in May. It gets more use from June to late August (usually just in the evenings) and we only use it in spring if there happens to be an extra cold snap.

In summer, the temperature rarely gets above 30⁰C, and this should be improved once we install a vine covered pergola along the northern wall. Most of the time house temperatures hover around 20ยบ. In terms of function and pleasant living environment the house performs extremely well. Every room is well lit and “airy” and the aesthetic qualities of the building materials are pleasant to the eye. All living areas have good outlook over surrounding gardens and bush allowing us to enjoy the natural attributes of our environment.

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 ( .
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