Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of the planet!

Have you ever stood in your house and prayed for less housework, dusting, maintaining and tidying?

Does it bother you greatly that many in the world have nothing they can call ‘home’?

There is a simple answer to both of these annoying problems:  bring about the end of the McMansion and replace it with the establishment of  an accessible, well-designed home for all.  This doesn’t need to be an ugly box, but can be an attractive ‘form following function’ design worked around the environment where it is to be installed or built.  Good design shouldn’t (in theory) be expensive, but it seems to take many mysterious steps to get to what many children would draw as their ‘simplified house’.

News this month is that Australia has the biggest average houses in the world!  What?? All that tiny Ikea furniture must be completely dwarfed!

But yes, I can believe the stats –  just driving around looking at the houses that newlyweds move into these days is quite amazing.  Home theatres, home offices that lie empty all day, libraries for those matching sets of books.  Family room, lounge room, massive kitchen with unused appliances as the owners mostly eat McD’s. (Hey, cooking would make the kitchen dirty!)

Hmmm. And yet, some of Australia’s people are homeless, living on the streets.

I found this wonderful site on the internet – Inhabitat, and perhaps this could be the start of things to turn that trend around. These people are intent on solving housing shortages without ugliness.  Their forms are sympathetic to surroundings and innovative.  As well as inexpensive.

Hurricane Katrina, the Tsunami, Indonesian and Timor earthquakes, Queensland and New South Wales floods and the Victorian Bushfires, wiping out houses faster than a town at a time may have taught us some lessons but the implementation of housing that does stand up to local disasters seems to be a far off dream.  I have always wondered, owning a house in a bushfire area, whether, if we had built a massive pisé structure with a domed roof, a bushfire would bake it into a hardened pot rather than shatter it.  My little experiments with this require some fire-bricking in stress areas of the structure.

Of course, the implementation of simpler, easily constructed and modular housing would require councils and other government planning authorities to re-think their tangle of rules and regulations.

How would one go about establishing some fast-erected structures but at the same time avoiding the instant slum that so often results from these projects?  What is the fastest method of building?

When I was a kid, migrant hostels were built from what looked to me like spooky ½ tanks, corrugated iron panels being bent over half hoop structures in Holmesglen, a suburb of Victoria.  Looking back on this, I absorbed a lot of strange xenophobia from this little settlement.  I can’t quite remember what my parents said as we drove past this place. They weren’t anti refugee though as my mother worked for years settling Vietnamese students into Australia and equipping their houses, though so it MUST have been the shape of these places that freaked me out.  They were UGLY and looked hot and ill ventilated, bars on their miniscule windows.  Large openings, therefore, windows to the new world, are high on my priority for good housing.

Renewable and quickly erected cladding is also essential.  There are some fabulous aggregate manufactured stone panels around.  Grollos, in building the old Harry Seidler designed Shell Building on the corner of Spring and Flinders streets in Melbourne, pioneered the method of using this ‘fake granite’ and the cantilevering of the formwork that made installation of it  easy.  Of course, this may not be applicable everywhere and is not simple or cheap.  But it is forever!

At present I live in a concrete house and am amazed at the solidity and climate friendliness of its construction.  Used to the brick veneer structure, I am accustomed to a house that rattles and shakes when I walk around it.  But this one doesn’t move.  And the walls keep the heat out as they are thick.  Some heat goes to the top floor and should be released through windows in our dome but they don’t, alas, open.  I wish we could work out a system for controlling that but so far haven’t worked out anything that doesn’t require electronics or ropes hanging down.  Let me know if you have heard of something.  Windows in each room are tinted and thick and keep the house silent.  They are also designed for cross breezes when open and the majority are floor to ceiling.  But this is a comparatively cheap house!  Not totally designed for the local conditions though.  We have added roofs on terraces to keep out sun and rain.  The solar panels we have just had installed on the roof add to the protection and there is a small overhang now where there were no eaves.

In Australia, in fact, throughout the world, verandahs are desirable and can double as additional living space with just a few modifications – louvers, shutters or just mossie nets.

Here are a few ideas for housing that I have always kept humming around in my head since childhood, and they are therefore, quite simplistic.  Architects may have different views!

  1. Walls should actually be containers for water gathered from the roof and plumbed into the structure feeding to all taps.  This would also provide insulation.
  2. Roofs should contain garden space and therefore be a mix of flat and pitched angles.
  3. Windows should be doors leading to a large verandah.
  4. Ceilings need to be 10-12 feet for sanity!
  5. Orientation should follow a solar passive plan allowing for maximum natural light without too much additional heat (verandah again is useful here)
  6. Roof needs to be oriented towards the north and strong enough for the solar panels as well as pitched to the correct angle.
  7. Thermal mass allowance:  Houses can be built to store heat (energy) and this can be gathered via some kind of heat exchange to then cool the house. Eco-buildings are often designed with a dark coloured solid concrete, stone, brick or mud wall and solid floor behind north facing windows and the heat gathered to be useful in winter or to be exchanged in summer for cooling.
  8. Wind tower effect – look at Moroccan and Arabic houses and you will see that many feature a tower on top that is quite open.  The air rises when heated and escapes through the open vents in the top.  In the tropics, water can get in these vents so consider some kind of louvre that can be operated from below. There is an automatic, wax filled louvre (designed in Australia) that opens in heat to release the air and when it cools, closes again.  Consider these but also look at where your rain comes from.  You will still need something to protect from heavy downpours. In a pre-existing house, you can get fans that release hot air from the roof cavity.
  9. Use recycled or natural materials.
  10. Look carefully at energy conservation.
  11. Make your house stand on its own feet and move towards self-sufficiency with systems such as grey water recycling and collecting, surfaces that avoid painting and re-painting, solar power and solar passivity engineered in.  You can also add wind power in simple forms.
  12. Materials that you need to purchase:  look at recycled, but any new should be of the highest quality you can afford.  Eg. I would budget for a large AGA stove with built in HWS.  Brightens up your life!! Pays for itself eventually.  Make sure it is properly vented though and not a pollutant.
  13. Look at systems such as waterless toilets.  (Composting)
  14. Ensure there is some green space around the house to avoid the allergy/dust effect.
  15. Try not to accumulate ‘stuff’.  This is hard in an era that values history and legal accounting and record keeping!!  I have so many files (kept on behalf of the govt. and not legal if scanned) it makes me sick!  From now on I am only giving ‘experiences’ or ‘services’ as gifts.  Nothing in boxes. Nothing that requires dusting.
  16. Our parents never took electricity for granted; we didn’t even have TV till I was sixteen or a car till I was six.  String,  bottles and jars were recycled; all food was grown in the backyard or swapped for someone having a glut and we had chooks to lay eggs and provide occasional meat meals.  Soap was even made (but hmmm that wasn’t great! And I LOVED discovering real shampoo).   People were too busy to be bad and didn’t have enough energy (given the lack of meat) to be constantly out on the ‘tear’!  Nobody bought plants at nurseries but swapped with friends.   Clothes were always handed down until they disintegrated and then the fabric was demoted to making braided rugs or cleaning rags.   Nobody went to the gym – we WORKED our butts off, riding a bicycle to work or school, staying healthy and fit in a house that was simple and effective.
  17. Floor coverings:  as stated above, these can be braided from scraps. Go to the op shop, buy old blankets or coats, dye them a lovely colour if they are ugly,  cut into strips across the bias (3 cm wide and as long as you can get them), tuck raw edges under and press, plait strips and stitch together for a very chunky, thick rug.  Allow additional stitches for corners so that the shape doesn’t buckle.
  18. Curtains:  I am very anti curtains as they collect fluff and prefer plantation shutters but they are very, very expensive.  Last forever though. AND you can make them yourself.  If you go to Rockler woodworking’s site or the New Yankee Workshop, you can BUY a DVD and set of plans on how to do it.  This works out at around 25% of the cost depending on what wood you use.  My advice is, save the painting till you can hire a spray painting unit, mask off a clean room totally in plastic, put on a mask and spray all components with primer, undercoat and 2 top coats.  Beautiful!   I have noticed that the plantation shutters also keep the room very much cooler as they have created a heat trap in the space between the window and the room which, when I can open the window, is released to outside and not in the room.
  19. Look at Peter Reefman’s Portland house for ideas in regard to home design (Google it!) and also his thoughts on video about lighting and the new LED lights.  These are a ripper. I bought LEDs for my Christmas lights this year and they are very cute and won’t add much to our daily power load.  Counting every watt!
  20. Trees and garden AROUND the house need planning too – grow tall shady trees (fast growers like Paulownias) where shade is required fast.  Don’t grow shady things where they will take away from your power if you are on solar.  In Victoria, growing azaleas etc. around your house line makes sense despite the nay-sayers!  The water you need to feed them will protect the foundations of the house. Keep big trees away from foundations and drains but oaks are productive and keep the possums entertained and out of your roof.  The garden environment IS part of your ecology.  Consider spending the money on digging a big enough hole for a water cistern – only a really large tank makes a big enough impact on water storage and stays fresh.  There are German models for this that are becoming cheaper than they used to.  Check your local council’s regulations.  Don’t just do the hideous cactus and stone dustbowl garden.  Plant lawn chamomile or other productive, flat herb and absorb that dust rather than have it puff up into the air.
  21. Drain your grey water to the garden.
  22. If you choose mud-brick or pisé, make it superthick thick, reinforce with crushed glass in your mix (which you can get from Visy for free) and add a waterproof coating in and out.  This will stop dust as well.  You must make sure that your damp course is efficient.
  23. Plan conduits for your utilities and power system and think ahead.
  24. See if you can find old hippie magazines in op shops as they have amazing info about being a self-builder including pole houses and various forms of mud construction.  (eg. Down to Earth Magazine).
  25. Investigate demolitions in your area and you can pick up window frames and doors quite cheaply.
  26. Go to CAE and learn the skills you may need (plastering, simple carpentry and joinery, leadlight etc.).
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