Monday 27 July 2015

Underwater flower children: Moreton Bay's EcoMarines

Ever come across something that makes you wish you were 10 years old again? It happened to me when I did a tour of the Greenest School on Earth (that's the link to my post) in Ubud, Bali.

A dolphin's view of Tangalooma
Island Resort (pic by the resort)
And it happened again at Tangalooma Island Resort in Queensland recently. I was on Moreton Island, off Brisbane, to learn about a new Qantas sustainable tourism program (here’s my story about that, from The Sydney Morning Herald last weekend).

While on the island, I also learned about a new eco-initiative, Tangalooma EcoMarines, set up by Penny Limbach, the resort's energetic PR and environment manager, to involve kids in conservation.

Their mission
The name “EcoMarines” is a play on US Marines (way to motivate a 10-year-old: make her feel like an action hero). And just like US Marines, Tangalooma EcoMarines have a mission: 

"To make a positive difference to the conservation of local waterways, ecosystems and marine life within Moreton Bay” by inspiring, motivating and educating school students, teachers, corporate groups and the wider community.

What’s so special about Moreton Bay?
Tangalooma EcoMarines focus on Moreton Bay for two reasons. First, it’s on the doorstep of both Tangalooma Island Resort (birthplace of the EcoMarines idea) and Brisbane (where most of the schools involved are).

Happiness is feeding a wild dolphin
Pic: Tangalooma Island Resort
Second, Moreton Bay is the only place in the world where you can see and interact with wild dolphins (I hand-fed one at Tangalooma Island Resort, a first for me), six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles (including 10,000 green turtles), migrating whales, tropical fish and corals. 

Because of its seagrass, Moreton Bay Marine Park is also one of the top 10 dugong habits in the world. I didn’t see any when I was there, but it's the only place in the world where “herds” (a nod to their original name, “sea cows”) of up to 100 dugongs live close to a major city.

"Sea cow" grazing on seagrass
Pic: Ruth Hartnup, Earthwatch
What’s the eco-problem?
Moreton Bay’s proximity to Brisbane is also its main problem. The big threats to the bay and its marine creatures are: land pollution (plastics, litter, fertilisers and land-clearing that causes run-off from agricultural land) and recreational fishing (particularly discarded and lost fishing lines, hooks and rubbish). Here's a short video made by Tangalooma EcoMarines about how harmful plastic is.

EcoMarines to the rescue!
In what is definitely a first in Australia, possibly the world, Tangalooma EcoMarines Foundation was set up in 2014 to help save Moreton Bay, with support from Tangalooma Island Resort, Earthcheck, Healthy Waterways and several media companies. Its founding patron is Dr David Neil from the University of Queensland, who has been studying Moreton Bay’s marine environment for more than 20 years.

Dear turtle, don't eat that!
How it works
Any school can sign up to be involved in the Tangalooma EcoMarines (TEM) Primary School Program; it’s free and it’s easy to run. In 2014, six schools signed up. There are now 13 schools in the program and Penny is hoping for 30 by the end of this year. 

Each school needs just one passionate support teacher, who appoints four students, usually from Years 4 and 5, to be Tangalooma EcoMarines Ambassadors for their school. They get a resource kit containing videos, templates and information about the various Challenges they can take on (see below) to help keep Moreton Bay clean.

EcoMarines cleaning up
Pic: Tangalooma EcoMarines
The “wish I was 10 years old” part
The EcoMarines Challenges are hands-on activities in which kids get to do good deeds for the environment and to spread awareness to others in their school and community. A few examples:
  • Adopt a Shop: work with a local shopowner to reduce plastic bag use
  • Ban the Balloon: stop the release of helium balloons, which end up in our waterways
  • Turn to the Tap: use re-fillable water bottles 
  • Spread the Word: encourage friends, teachers and family members to become EcoMarines
  • Create Your Own Challenge: find more ways to help reduce pollution.

The Last Sunday Club
A few new Challenges were added this year, such as Make Your Fete Eco-Friendly, Happy Clean Halloween and Screenings of Bag It (an award-winning eco-doco about plastic). My favourite is the Last Sunday Club, which sounds as fun as The Breakfast Club (great movie, by the way) and encourages anyone, not just kids, to spend an hour picking up rubbish at a local beach, park or waterway on the last Sunday of each month.

Snorkelling off Moreton Island
Pic: James Udy, Healthy Waterways
EcoMarines’ report card so far
Tangalooma EcoMarines recently won this year’s Healthy Waterways Sustainable Education Award. It's not hard to see why. 

The benefits for the kids are huge. They learn about their local environment and how to keep it healthy. They get to take action, such as reducing plastic, to benefit natural waterways, and feel part of the "solution to pollution". And they learn leadership skills. As Penny says, “It creates leadership positions for kids who are often not likely to lead.” Win, win, win!

The sea needs YOU (as well as your kids)
What’s next for Tangalooma EcoMarines? The horizon’s the limit. One Queensland school recently appointed two Media Reps (budding environmental journalists) in addition to their four Ambassadors. Last year’s EcoMarine Ambassadors have become EcoMarine Champions, to mentor this year’s Ambassadors. 

Bottlenose dolphins, Moreton Bay
Pic: Jeff Krauss, Earthwatch
Most excitingly, Penny is developing a regional model so the Tangalooma EcoMarines program can be adopted by primary schools anywhere in Australia – and beyond (schools in Spain and the US have already expressed interest). 

There’s also a pilot High School Program, which will link to tertiary and marine research institutions, and plans for Corporate and Clubs programs so people can do challenges in their workplaces and clubs.

Today, Moreton Bay. Tomorrow ... the world!

More info
Have a look at or contact the Tangalooma EcoMarines Team on You can also find them on facebook, Twitter (@TangaEcoMarines), Instagram (Tangalooma_EcoMarines) and LinkedIn (Tangalooma EcoMarines).

Friday 10 July 2015

10 minutes with Australia's natural building guru

Last week's post, How to build a cabin, got such a great response I thought I’d run this interview I did on the last day of the natural building course - with our inspirational teacher, Sam Vivers. 

Sam, on the job
Sam is a licensed builder, carpenter and strawbale guru; he and his team at Viva Homes have built more than 25 strawbale homes. He even lives in one himself. 

Here, Sam talks about the rise of natural building, where it’s at in Australia, the "Grand Designs effect" and why strawbale is beautiful, on so many levels...

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.