Thursday, 2 July 2015

How to build a cabin* (Natural Building 101, Byron Bay)

A couple of weeks ago, I went away for a few days, but not to travel or research a story. I did a 4-day natural building course.

Wall (and pic) by Milkwood
It was run by Milkwood - which teaches people all sorts of simple-life skills from permaculture to natural beekeeping - at their new Byron Bay venue, The Farm (mentioned in my recent why-I-love-the-Northern-Rivers post).

In some ways, it was like taking a short trip - to a place I'd never been before, but had long been curious about. I got to meet new people, fill my notebook with interesting things, take a few pics and drop into a new culture, guided by natural building guru (and incredible teacher) Sam Vivers, of Viva Homes, which designs and builds strawbale houses.

Sam Vivers, our natural
building leader
What is natural building? "It's using materials which are non-processed and preferably local to the area where the house is being constructed," says Sam.

Real sustainable homes, he says, not only use less carbon than man-made processed materials, they have incredible properties such as the ability to regulate temperature and purify the air inside. They're healthy to live in, and healthy for those building them.

And it's on the rise. "Fifteen years ago when we built our first strawbale house, no one knew what it was," says Sam. "Now [thanks largely to Grand Designs and its eco-conscious presenter Kevin McCloud], everyone's asking not 'what is it?' but 'how do they work, and how do you build them?'"

Mixing up light straw
(clay with straw)
My fellow travellers (I mean, students) came from all over Australia - Perth, Tasmania, Sydney, Brisbane - their heads full of plans and projects of all kinds. A couple building an ecolodge in South Africa, three bearded teachers from Brisbane planning a new sustainable structure at their school, people ready to start building their first home.

There were 24 of us, including an apprentice carpenter, an architect, a few builders, a natural gardener. Then there were those who, like me, are a bit in love with cabins and tiny houses and dream of building their own one day.

As the rain drummed on the corrugated roof of our giant shed-classroom, for the first three days at least, we learned about thermal mass and passive solar design, how to choose a building site, and about various roof designs, floor systems and natural materials - strawbale is the most common but there's also cob (clay), rammed earth, mud bricks, recycled timber, earthbags, hempcrete.

We talked in millimetres and R-values (insulation ratings), learned how not to build a "gingerbread house" (builder-ese for a house that's not plumb or level).

How many rookies does it
take to build a straw wall?
In the afternoons, we got to do some hands-on natural building. Because this was a course, not a workshop, our only goal was to learn, not to build a structure. But we did practise various techniques that, if you were to put them all together, could result in, say, a cabin.

(In one of Sam's recent workshops, in fact, 16 people made a circular strawbale hut with an earth floor in four days.)

Getting my hands dirty
Pic: Carmel Killin
That first day, we built a strawbale wall, five bales high and three across. (There's more to it than just stacking bales on top of each other, by the way; you have to compress the strawbales every few layers, and cinch them down with wire using a nifty device called a gripple. Love builders' jargon).

The next day we smeared an earth render all over the straw with our bare, muddy hands. Later in the week, we gave it smoother coats, and put a lime render on the "outside" - for weatherproofing.

We made a cob wall - by ramming clumps of clay with bits of straw in it, inside a plywood frame; it was hard work (note to self: never build with rammed earth). And a "reciprocal roof" out of bamboo poles that radiated at tangents from a central, chimney-like hole. On our last day we even made a (one square metre) earth floor.

A tiny earth floor
It was all so refreshing, to learn about something totally new to me. (My parents built one of the houses we lived in, and renovated others, but I was too young to find it interesting back then.) My take-home messages were:

1. Natural building is a community thing. It’s great to be involved in building even part of your own home, and Sam recommends it, but you need help. “Modern building materials are designed to reduce labour costs,” he says, because labour is expensive in Australia. So people building natural homes often run workshops: you get to learn and practise skills you might use on your own place, they get volunteer labour.

2. Straw is not hay! You might be wondering what the difference is (as I did, out loud, on day one.) I learned that although they look similar, straw is a byproduct of rice farming (in NSW; wheat straw is often used in Queensland). It's the stems of the harvested plants. Hay is grass, usually lucerne used for animal feed, and unsuitable for building; its high moisture content means the bales can go mouldy.

3. Natural houses are good for us, and the planet. They're non-toxic (asthmatics often breathe easier in natural homes) and comfortable to live in (warm in winter, cool in summer, and earth floors are softer to walk on than concrete slabs). Straw in particular is one of the best insulators in the world. Natural homes also last, as anything sustainable must, and when a house does eventually reach the end of its life, everything it's made from can return to the earth.

A strawbale home in all its glory
4. Strawbale is beautiful. Sam showed us pics of some of the homes he and his team have built (including his own) and they're all incredibly inviting, earthy without being rough or rustic, with creative touches such as niches and curved walls and alcoves. Click here for more pics of Viva's strawbale and earth homes.

5. Different materials suit different conditions/locations. Mud brick works best when there’s a big diurnal range in temperature, e.g. hot days and cold nights. "Earth ships" work well in hot climates because they rely on the thermal mass of the earth (did you know that in Australia the temperature two metres underground is a constant 16C?). Recycled timber is cheap, but labour intensive (to pull out old nails, etc). The material or method you choose largely depends on what's available on your site or nearby.

Our work is done: a sun-break
on our last day
Above all, this course stoked the fire of my cabin-fever, in a practical way. The next step: a workshop, to practise some of my just-learned skills. Stay tuned.

*No cabin was actually built in the course of this course. But having never made anything bigger than a ceramic pot, I'm excited just to have inched - or millimetred - a little closer to the idea of building one, one day.

Milkwood's next Natural Building Course is 19-22 November 2015, in Kangaroo Valley, NSW. For more information about natural building and strawbale houses in particular, see and the FAQ page.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

8 things you can do - this week - to save the planet

"There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew."

So said Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan and it's one of my favourite quotes, one I've been contemplating this week as we hurtle towards World Environment Day (this Friday, June 5, but you knew that).

One of our crewmates
If we are all "crew", what simple things can we all do - right now - to help the world's environment? Everyday things that won't cost much (or anything) or require too much effort?

I give you: 8 things we can all do this week, to help save the planet:

1. Think about your impact on the planet. That's it. No need to actually do anything, not yet. There are five main ways our daily lives have an impact the environment: transport, food, energy, consumerism and waste. Of course, thinking naturally leads to questions, and that's a good thing: Where do your food, water and electricity come from? How much rubbish do you throw out each week? How do you get to work? Once we know where we are, we can see where we need to go.

Yes, let's!
2. Find an eco-friend. It can be anyone who, like you, understands that a healthy natural environment is essential for all life on Earth, including ours. A friend, a co-worker, a neighbour, someone in your family, hell, it can be 1 Million Women. Making changes to the way we live is always more fun, and more achievable, with company. It also reminds us we're all in this together.

Candles by candlelight
3. Have an electricity-free night. First, buy a few beeswax candles (hands down the best candles for you and the environment; try Happy Flame or Northern Light organic beeswax candles). Then turn off the lights, the tv, all devices. (In winter, electric heaters are optional!) Play scrabble or read by candlelight. It's surprisingly calming; like camping, with home comforts.

4. Ditch the car. Not literally, of course. Cars are handy, but most of us don't need to drive as much as we do. This week, try replacing at least one car trip by walking, riding a bike, car-sharing or catching public transport.

Light My Fire's
packable cup
5. Reduce before recycling. The fate of your garbage depends on where you live and what your local council can process. (My local council, Ballina, collects food scraps weekly in the green waste bin, and recycles plastic bags with paper, glass and hard plastics, which is pretty cool.)

But one thing we can all do in this coffee-loving country (Australians drink 1.3 million cups of takeaway coffee a day!) is avoid using disposable cups for one week. Some cafes (like these ones in Sydney) even give you a discount for bringing your own reusable cup. I use a Light My Fire cup that squashes down after use to fit in my bag.

Vegetarian pizza, mmm
6. Eat less meat. The holy grail for sustainable dining is local, seasonal and organic, but going vegan or vegetarian takes it up a notch. Why? Because meat is a land- and water-hungry beast, and accounts for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. (Don't get me started on fish, where there's a whole ocean of other issues.) This week, try to replace at least one meat meal with a vegetarian dish. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has some handy tips for going vego.

Sea, sky, sand: nature's balm
7. Get outside. We're part of the natural world - it's all around us, and inside us, all the time - but it's easy to forget that, particularly when we live in a big city. So do something to remind yourself this week. Use all your senses: feel the sun or a breeze on your face, listen to the rain on the roof, look up at the moon or the trees, smell the sea air, touch (or hug!) a tree. How does this help? When we appreciate our connection to nature, we're more likely to care about our impact on the natural world.

Tree-planting (pic by GeoLINK)
8. Make a positive impact. Living more sustainably isn't just about cutting back, it's about giving back. The natural world is all-powerful, of course, and will survive long after we're gone, but every little bit helps, if only to say thank you for all the rainbows and sunsets. Giving back can be as simple as picking up three pieces of rubbish the next time you're out walking; you can even join the Two Hands Project and record what you find.

Me, I'm going tree-planting on Friday morning, a first for me.

Whatever you get up to, happy World Environment Day!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

10 (more) things I love about the Northern Rivers

It's been almost five months (five months!) since I pressed "pause" on my digital gypsy life and started an experiment called "living in one place". 

Love is in the air, and in the sand
(Main Beach, Byron)
So far, so good. In fact, the more time I spend in northern NSW, the more I love it. Which explains this follow-up to my Why I love the Northern Rivers post about 10 newly discovered things that warm my green heart:

1. Flicks at Federal. Once a month, Federal Film Society screens a movie in its little hall to raise money for the local school, Upper Coopers Creek primary. Last weekend, my friend Katie and I drove up from Lennox Head to see Almost Famous (one of my all-time favourite movies) and we were both blown away by this amazing local event. 

Parents ran the box office (tickets $8) and served home-made cakes and curries (for $12). Kids from the school (there are only 14 students) cleared the tables. We stood outside at intermission to look at the stars, and helped stack the plastic chairs when it was all over. It was one of the simplest, most enjoyable Saturday nights I can remember. (Federal also runs regular public discussions on global issues, called FedTalks.) 

Exit, stage left...
2. Sunsets and pelicans. One of my favourite things to do at the end of a sunny day is sit on the headland at Lennox and watch the sky put on its evening colours. In the daytime, I love seeing the pelicans perched on the lamp-posts, strutting along the sand or hanging with the fishermen on the beach.

3. Ballina airport. This might seem an odd thing to love but, well, I am a travel writer. I love that my nearest airport is a beachy 10-minute drive from my house, and that parking (right outside the terminal) costs $2 for TWO HOURS (if you can be bothered to buy a ticket). I even love the no-smoking signs outside, with their gentle “No one smokes here anymore.” 

4. Eating close to the source. The other night, while making dinner, I realised that everything I was about to eat had been grown or made locally: the pesticide-free Nimbin Valley brown rice, the organic tofu, the veggies I'd bought the day before at Byron farmers’ market, even the Rainforest Foods macadamia oil I was stir-frying it all in. I love that I can buy apples with the leaves still on them. I can even buy locally grown pineapples and avocados at Lennox Head petrol station. This whole volcanically rich area is a cornucopia of goodness. 

Mermaid sighting, Brunswick Heads
5. Surfing with wildlife. It's not uncommon in Australia to see dolphins while surfing. But up here, it's almost unusual NOT to see them. And there are so many! A few weeks ago, two friends and I surfed with about 40 dolphins that hung around for a couple of hours, lazily swimming up and down the beach and under our surfboards. I've also been seeing turtles, gannets and sea eagles and hordes of mullet (unsettling as they bring sharks close to shore). Soon the whales will be coming past on their way north. Can't wait. 

6. Fifty shades of, er,  soy? Sometimes, when you order a latte up here, your friendly barista will ask if you want “moo” (cow’s milk) – or skim, soy, rice, macadamia or almond milk (have I missed any?). I also recently discovered the sweet joy of a coconut mocha (a mocha coffee made with coconut milk); it’s like sipping a melted Bounty bar. Mmm.

Yes, let's. 
7. It's easy being green. I don't think I've heard the term "greenie" since I moved up here; around here, caring about your impact on the environment is called... normal. Of course there are issues, most notably luxury housing developments and coal seam gas mining (which resulted in Greens MP Tamara Smith winning the Ballina seat from the Nationals in the recent NSW election, for the first time in 27 years, yay!). But it's also a place where it's easy to eat organic, be vegan, go solar and see eco-movies like Frackman (now touring Australia), which got a standing ovation at the Byron Bay Film Festival. 

8. Road signs. In my previous post I mentioned that I love the hand-painted sign on the northern outskirts of Byron that says "Cheer up. Slow down. Chill out." Now there’s a contender, outside Mullumbimby - see left. 

Rachel Carson on
the cover of issue #2
9. Poet bookstore. Last week I discovered book-heaven in a side street of Bangalow, 15 minutes from Byron. Poet's antique bookshelves are filled with carefully chosen thought-provoking books. They also publish two beautiful, inspiring quarterly magazines, Womankind and New Philosopher, the likes of which I've never seen in Australia. 

10. Lots to learn. There are some very cool workshops and courses happening up here. My friend Teri goes to a regular "Mums and Bubs Permaculture" morning once a week in Mullum. Another friend (hi Liz!) just told me about an upcoming bamboo and banana-fibre workshop. 

Future No Impact Girl
And Byron Bay's newest eco-venture, The Farm, which opened in March and whose motto is "Grow. Feed. Educate", is running all sorts of earth-skills courses from beekeeping to permaculture to natural building through its partner organisation Milkwoodwhich also runs courses in Sydney and the NSW south coast, and has a fascinating blog about things like how to make a smokeless, upside-down campfire. Good to know, with winter coming... 

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Turtle time - on Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef

It's hard not to love turtles. They're ancient, for one thing: sea turtles have been around for 120 million years, coexisting with dinosaurs until 60 million years ago. They're vulnerable: almost all seven species are endangered. They migrate enormous distances, and at about 40 years of age, the females return to lay their eggs on the very beach where they were once hatchlings.

Green turtle mama
They're the gentle monks (and nuns) of the sea - on Heron Island, at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, a few weeks ago, I saw several green turtles quietly grazing, sleeping under rock ledges or swimming in the shallows, the embodiment of equanimity.

On previous trips to the island, I'd seen a multitude of nesting turtles hauling themselves up the beach at night to lay their ping-pong-ball eggs in the sand. But I'd never seen hatchlings. Until this trip.

One morning, at the completely wrong time of day (sunrise, instead of sunset, when they normally emerge, in near-darkness) my friend Matt and I came across an entire nest of hatchlings breaking free of the sand at once, clambering over each other, in golden morning light, no one else around.

Newborn courage
I stood right beside the sand nest for a few minutes (Matt was at the water's edge at first, defending a lone hatchling we'd seen moments before, from swooping seabirds) before I remembered to shoot some video, and I've just put together the footage into a short clip to show one turtle's journey from nest to sea. 

Watching and following a few to the water's edge I was struck by the fact that even in their first minutes of life, they have so much to contend with: sand craters and sticks to climb over and crawl under, silver gulls promising death from above. And they just. keep. going. Each one totally alone, every hatchling for itself. Their mother long gone (she'd laid these eggs two months earlier). Running on instinct. Wanting to live.

I give you: a minute and a half of turtle time. Enjoy. 

Read my first story from the trip on Travel There Next: 10 reasons to visit Heron Island. And big thanks to Heron Island Resort and Delaware North for this trip (which was part work, part prize for a travel writing award).