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Lessons learned: a Brisbane couple cut no corners in their sustainable home: some people plan their sustainable house for years, researching materials and design. And some, like ACF members Keith Armstrong and Julie Dean, just leap into it.

"I'VE MET PEOPLE WHO HAD BEEN PLANNING their eco house for years, but we were very much learning as we went," says Julie.

"We'd just had our son, Kai," adds Keith, "and even though we were exhausted, we really needed to do more pre-planning!"

"Keith and I had developed a shared vision for what living sustainably might mean," recalls Julie. "But we were pretty naive about the whole building process!"

Through a mutual friend, the couple befriended architect Jim Gall, of Gall & Medek. They found a slim block of land in leafy Bardon in Brisbane's inner west and called on Jim to design their new home.

Both Keith and Julie were determined to make the home as environmentally friendly as possible, and one priority was the reduction of PVC piping throughout the house.

"All building materials have pros and cons," says Julie. "When considering your family home, your health and your ideals about green building practices, it's a matter of trying to keep a balance between emotion and logic."

"In the end we settled for Zincalume, but because of its lack of strength compared to PVC, we ended up needing six feeds off the roof (to the water tanks), which all had to have first-flush diverters and leaf eaters. Plus the roof needed gutter guards. And because we wanted to drink the water, we also had to install two stages of filters as well!"

"We also had to find a plumber who could, and would, work with Zincalume. So the water system ended up being pretty expensive."

Jim explains the end result: "As the concern was with PVC, we used a polyethylene (recyclable but not biodegradable) product underground--the lesser of two evils. But all the horizontal plumbing, which hangs under the house across to the water tanks, is Zincalume."

The issue of PVC had not occurred to the pair until some of the plumbing had already been installed. Hence Julie's advice on research first!

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The couple also took on the massive camphor laurel tree--a declared weed--in the backyard. Following the permaculture principle to utilise what's on site, they decided to use the tree's timber in the house construction, including bench-tops and stairs.

"It proved quite difficult, as it had to come down in pieces, and then we had to find someone to cut it into slabs," remembers Keith. "Everyone just said wood-chip it! We did find someone eventually, and then we had to dry it on site for a year. And after all that, we were never really sure how it would turn out!" "It cost around $4,000 to cut down and slab, and we had to think 'is this really worth it?' On one hand we were cutting down a visually beautiful tree--but then we actually used it for something that would endure. We love that idea--but if we were acting purely financially it would not have made sense.

"We believe that looking at the big picture beyond simply 'what will it cost us' is really critical to sustainable thinking."

To which Jim Gall adds, "A well-planned, small house can offset these costs."

The compact garden is now home to a flock of chooks, a frog pond, permaculture plantings and a vegie garden. A back neighbour grows natives to recreate the green screening lost by cutting down the camphor laurel.

During the build, compromises did have to be made--such as truckloads of rock being removed to make room for Keith's ground floor studio and the workshop. While moving all that rock was a definite negative, the long-term environmental plus of working from home (and not renting a studio) was indisputable.

The building design also focussed on not building a larger home than was needed, and utilising low-cost materials.

"Jim always talks about 'minimal materials and maximal effect'," says Keith.

Deceptively simple, Jim Gall's design is low tech. He uses simple materials that speak for themselves, a design that means temperatures remain relatively constant, and windows that look out onto sky and trees, not neighbours. Best of all, he has created a sustainable home for Keith, Julie and Kai to live in for decades to come.

The use of the camphor laurel for timber in this building was an innovative response to an environmental problem, as camphor laurel is an invasive weed. Camphor laurel is a native to Japan, Taiwan and some parts of China, but has spread along the eastern seaboard of Australia from northern Queensland to Victoria.

If you have a plant you're unsure about check the Weeds of National Significance (WONS) website: www. weeds.org.au.

Two of the many weed trees listed on the website include white teak and white cedar, which could be worth investigating for milling if you have them on your property.

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Author:Dunsmore, Danielle
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2009
Words:802
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