Building a Good News Home
My wife and I were both raised in families that loved the great outdoors - Michelle’s family were coastal while mine had an affinity with the bush. But the Christian community we were raised in emphasised that ‘getting to heaven’ and the spiritual side of faith were priorities - the earth didn’t matter in the scheme of things. Not only did this create a dissonance between our faith and our love for the great outdoors, but I remember early on in our marriage admitting that singing worship songs on clouds for eternity wasn’t very appealing (it sounded like a slightly better version of hell!). But, as we read and reflected further, we realised that our love of nature wasn’t a flaw in our faith but a reflection of God’s intentional design for humanity to ‘be strong enough to care for the rest of creation’ as it in-turn provides and cares for us. This was hugely encouraging for us, and a significant step towards integrating our faith into the everyday.
Michelle and I were married in 2008 and had an opportunity to start building a home in 2011. We incorporated some sustainability designs into it: passive solar to capture the winter sun for heating, double glazing to conserve energy, we incorporated some recycled materials, and experimented with a reed-bed to recycle our greywater as well as with earth pipes that cool the home (by running air through pipes buried 3m underground).
We also got a few things wrong. I was able to build the home myself and went almost entirely solo on the construction work. This was unhealthy on a number of levels, and it meant we spent three years building a cheap-but-too-large home that we immediately felt uncomfortable living in (ha!).
We had included a self-contained unit in the design as we thought someone needing support could live with us. We also built a duplex rental on the block next door with communal veggie gardens in-between the two dwellings. We figured a Jesus-shaped landlord might flip the rental application process, so we selected tenants we thought might not normally get selected, and set prices proportional to the tenant’s financial capacity.
We moved into the home in 2014, and I began a master’s in transformational development that included a unit on climate change, justice, and sustainability. It rocked us theologically and practically by highlighting that much of our lifestyle was still unsustainable and well outside God’s intention for his creation, and that folks like us were driving climate change and hurting the very same people we were aiming to assist through our involvement in international aid and development.
Uncomfortable in our too-large home, and regularly feeling overwhelmed by our solo attempts at supporting people in the three units, we sold the house and units in 2018. We wanted to downsize and be an example of what faith-integrated sustainability might look like in Perth that included some form of intentional community where support is shared and reciprocated between households. Drawing from our theology and experiences, we began drafting plans for a new home that incorporated three biblical concepts: 1) ‘enough’, 2) community with others and creation, and 3) being ‘good news for the least of these.’
Michelle had experience in drafting house plans, so we had time to refine the layout. We wanted a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house that utilised a passive solar design (to minimise heating and cooling needs), included a self-contained wheelchair accessible unit (if we can, why not make it usable for the widest range of needs?), and had a small footprint. When we brought these goals together there wasn’t much wiggle room in the design, which was helpful in its own way. The final plan ended up providing 26m2 per person; the average Aussie home allows 95m2 per person. Most new homes in Perth cover 75% of the block and host 2.5 people, our layout covers 26% of the block and houses up to eight people.
We opted for a loft home to reduce materials—particularly energy-intensive concrete—our ground floor is 60% of what it would be if it was single storey. This also allowed us to grow more fruit and veg and maximise habitat and space shared with ‘the rest of creation.’ We made bedrooms the minimum size permitted by the building regulations (we spend most of our time in there with our eyes closed anyway). We designed a laundry that could be shared by the unit and main house: previously, we had eight people and four washing-machines between our house and three units, now we share one washer between eight people.
We went for a rectangular footprint for ease of construction and to reduce building waste (more angles mean more offcuts of all materials). We chose a timber frame because it is a renewable resource, stores carbon rather than creates it (as with bricks and concrete), is much easier to insulate and requires smaller footings (again, less embodied energy). We kept wardrobes and storage spaces small to put physical limits on the amount of clothes and stuff we could have.
We also drafted the landscaping during this time. We wanted to integrate play and food production areas and have separate courtyards for the unit and main house which could be combined when hosting larger groups. Our guiding principle for plants was that they should produce food for us or be a source of habitat and food for native animals and critters. We assumed that God created all native plants beautiful and that diversity would reflect his design for creation (where in God’s design do we see monocultures?). We are within walking distance of two manicured ovals, so we kept lawn to a minimum.
We felt some real tensions during this phase. At times, it was hard to distinguish between needs and wants. We do a fair bit of hosting and home produce – if our kitchen is too small, would we do less of these? Our inherent fear of ‘too small’ surfaced regularly and was often encouraged by folks with whom we shared our designs. We also kept comparing our plans against Perth houses rather than the homes I visit in rural Indonesia; we have a bias towards measuring ourselves against people who have more. Lord have mercy.
I worked with three gents (two in early recovery from addiction) to construct the timber framing and still did a lot of the construction myself, but we were selective about where other tradies were involved. It was healthier working within my skillset and much more fun working as a team, plus the lads and tradies had plenty of great ideas we wouldn’t have thought of.
In the months prior, we purchased recycled and left-over building products. At times, it was difficult to work out whether it was worth the driving, but about 65% of the timber for framing, and 80% of the steel, skirtings, door handles, floorboards, tiles, insulation, cement, bricks (for garden beds), light fittings and a lot of hardware was sourced in this way, saving about $5,000. All kitchen, laundry, and bathroom benchtops were off-cuts and all basins and sinks were abandoned stock from builders.
To combat the hot WA sun, we installed double glazing and twice the Aussie standard of insulation in the roof space and on the eastern and western walls. We also installed 6kW of battery-ready solar. All appliances are electric, including an induction hotplate (30% less power), and a heat-pump hot water system which only runs when the solar panels are doing their thing.
“We separated all waste on site during the building process, allowing about 80-90% of it to be recycled”.
Rather than install floorcoverings downstairs, we hired equipment and polished the concrete slab. It was cheap at $15/m2, required fewer materials than conventional floorcoverings, and is brilliant at smashing op-shop crockery. Upstairs, we used recycled timber floorboards from a nearby school which had been demolished (a symbolic triumph for home-schooling every time we climb the stairs for ‘class’).
We weren’t happy with the direct-pump and reed-bed greywater systems we’d tried in the past. We found an anaerobic-aerobic treatment design, but our council wouldn’t allow it (‘You’re only permitted the direct pump option or the $5,000 plus $300/month fully serviced option sir. Have a lovely day!’). Under the guise of being prophetic, we built it anyway for about the same price as a direct-pump system. We ordered a 23,000 litre rainwater tank, but they delivered a 28,000 litre (no problem!).
We separated all waste on site during the building process, allowing about 80-90% of it to be recycled, but we estimate that around 1.5m3 still ended up in landfill. We learnt that educating (most) tradies on separating waste is in its early days and has a long way to go.
By the end, the house ended up almost cyclone proof—I’d read too much about climate change—and we were able to make lots of adjustments during the build (and incorporate recycled or left-over materials) because a builder we know permitted us to work under his license and supervision. We’re keenly aware that this was a rare opportunity, and that signing up with a conventional (particularly large or project-home) builder would not allow the amount of flexibility we had: building differently will require finding a builder who not only agrees to your budget, but shares your goals and values.
Dreams and reality
The build officially cost us $180,000, but that didn’t include my labour, or items given or heavily discounted. We also shared scaffolding and a lot of tools or machinery through our networks so we didn’t need to hire them. Some work was done at or below wholesale prices because of family who are stubborn in their generosity (cabinets and electrical). It would have cost more around the $300,000 mark if it was built conventionally, which is about what most people spent on a house in WA that year. But on a per-person cost, building our home conventionally would be under $40,000 per person while the average WA home in that year was about $120,000 per resident.
Our house never gets below 20 degrees inside in winter (it was four degrees outside yesterday morning!) and we have no heating beyond baking bread and burning candles. In summer, the temperature inside the house will rise three-five degrees on a 35+ degree day, and at night we open the house and use pumped ventilation to capture the night air when it’s cooler outside. Even so, if we get a few hot nights in a row we start looking like something between a loaf of bread and a melted candle, so we’ve installed the smallest aircon we could find (1.5kW) to run on hot days while the solar panels are pumping, and it cools the entire house (the air-con guy recommended an 8kW unit. C’mon mate). Our house uses a fraction of the energy compared to a normal Perth house.
The rainwater tank keeps the whole house watered about ten months of the year, and the greywater system produces enough water for the fruit trees and 35m2 of raised veggie beds. Water is recycled in the cooler months when we don’t need it and we don’t have the capacity to store it. So, on average, the greywater covers 65% of the annual water we use on the gardens. The Water Corporation tells us we use less water than 85% of Western Australians, even with the veggie patch and fruit trees (our biggest areas of water consumption).
Each year, the bucket-method composting toilet (also unapproved: ‘You want to do what, sir?!’) saves about 30,000 litres of water, 300kWhs of electricity, and produces about 60 bags of compost each year (which is more than we need, so we share it with anyone who wants some). The garden provides about 4kg of fruit and veg per week and we expect that it will increase to around 7kg per week as the soil improves, more fruit trees start bearing and the fruit fly get better at sharing.
We have people over for dinner once or twice a week, and a few times a year we host 20-30 people. Some shuffling of furniture is needed for larger groups, but it’s really not an issue. NDIS messed with our plans for the unit—like many NDIS stories, it’s too long to share here—but we’ve had a variety of people stay in the unit. The least number of people we’ve ever had in the house is six (our family), the most we’ve had is eight (a couple in the unit). Some noise travels between the portions of the house: some people don’t like it, but most say it makes it feel homely.
As if we didn’t feel lucky enough, 18 months after we moved in, the opportunity came up to build a house next door. It has a split design too: a three-bedroom, one-bathroom portion and a self-contained unit. The idea was both homes could support someone, and then house ‘leads’ support each other. It seemed like no-one was interested despite us praying like monks through the build, but a family rolled up in the weeks before it was ready, and they have been such beautiful neighbours—again, probably a story for another time. We’re finding it’s much more sustainable to support people this way, even with some challenging tenants we’ve had.
We love it here. People often ask us teasingly when we’ll move and build again, but I’m not sure we will. It feels like home, and when it’s just the two of us, we’ll likely move into the unit and support people in the main house. We’re incredibly thankful for this opportunity despite the conundrums it has created: even with our intentions, resources, and design, there are still a lot of questions.
For example, if our home is considered highly sustainable in the Australian context, what do we do about the waste that was still produced during the build? This house also isn’t very recyclable at the end of its life (so many things are glued!): how do we—can we?—change construction methods? What about folks who don’t have the time, money, skills, or network to do this kind of thing? What is better: new builds, renovations, or being satisfied with existing homes as they are? I’d argue that each of these have a unique set of challenges, conundrums, and short-comings.
I do think what we’ve attempted is in many ways a step in the right direction, even with these questions - the narrow path is winding and messy right? But the biblical narratives remind me that God so often chooses the poor as exemplars, educators, and leaders: the likes of Moses, David, Rahab, and Mary.
While wanting to avoid a romantic view of the economically poor, the communities in rural Indonesia that I often visit live in homes built from very local materials, have tiny footprints, are almost entirely compostable, and have a high degree of communal ownership.
What might we learn from the economically poor on living sustainably in community? What might have changed in our design and build if ‘following the example of the economically poor’ had been one of our key design principles?