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Switch: a book of home made power, water and garbage systems.

This is a book for enthusiasts, who either want to do things for themselves - either for moral, financial or ecological reasons, or just for the sheer pleasure of it - and for people who may never do any of them - but do at least like to know that such things can be done.

Most of us accept lives that have been largely designed for us - jobs that other people have created 'job specifications' for; houses designed by other people to fit needs that may not be ours; neighbourhoods where we have no say in the amenities; timetables not of our choosing even leisure is mostly preprepared by media experts, sporting committees et al.

Designing your own power system, dealing with your own garbage, coping with your own sewerage etc are just some of the ways we can take control of our lives. You may choose to do this for ethical reasons - because the alternatives are wasteful, exploitative or polluting. You may also choose them because they are an integral part of your life. Life is short. It's a pity to waste any of it.

By this I don't mean that we need to accept unpleasant chores as part of our lives- but then I don't believe that dealing with your own garbage, waste, water or power is necessarily unpleasant. (Babies smell a bit too and need both care and maintenance - but I wouldn't have liked them to be excluded from my life).

Many people prefer to have their lives run for them. That's their choice. This is a book for people who delight in designing their own lives - or at least understanding the processes around them.


Integrated Houses

Often houses suffer from too many independent experts. The house is built by one company, power is connected by a second, water from a third, sewerage and garbage all performed by other people. Food is brought in from somewhere else - like the power and water - and the inhabitants go to other places too to work or learn. (Even entertainment is piped in via the TV.)

Houses should be designed by the inhabitants as places where they would live, love, play, learn, work, eat, grow and, hopefully, be happy. That is they should be deliberately created according to an ideal, rather than accidentally accumulated according to society's habits.

Our place is mentioned in other parts of the book - see heating and cooling and power systems. It's built out of local stone and timber from local sawmills and second hand bits and pieces scavenged from all over the place. It cost about $5000 to lock up stage a dozen years ago, but has been added to and modified so many times since that I'd hate to add up what it's cost. Luckily we've never had to - it's just been created as we've had the time and money. Like our power system though, this 'bits and pieces over many years' system is its greatest advantage - we've spent money only when we've had it and haven't had to borrow to build or extend our house - and our plans for the house have gradually changed as our needs have changed too.

Like most owner-builders round here I doubt that the house will ever be finished. There's always another room we'd like to build or extend - and whenever we have spare money, spare time and a windfall of materials - or just an idea we can't resist - we keep on building.

The house is powered by the sun - both actively, through photovoltaic panels that give us our electricity - and passively as the sun heats the house (and helps cool it) and heats our hot water. Water comes from the creek except in a drought, but mostly, for house use, from rainwater collected on the roof and stored in two tanks. Sewerage wastes go into a septic tank (we'd rather have had a composting toilet but that's a long story - I wouldn't go the septic route again) except where urine is deposited directly and discreetly onto a fruit tree. Eventually the septic wastes will be buried up above the orchard with deep rooted plants on top of them - probably wattles - which will in turn be slashed to feed the fruit trees - so the nutrients won't be lost, just out of the system for a few decades.

The garden heats us, warms us, entertains us (a dozen bower birds cavorting on the pergola or spinebills dipping their beaks into the grevilleas) and mostly feeds us. (At one stage it fed us entirely, but I've lost the fanaticism of self sufficiency. If I want out-of-season watermelon or mangoes now I buy them, or even potatoes if it's cold and wet and I don't feel like trekking down the back and digging.)

There's no formal separation between house and garden. The warm or cool areas out the front and back are as much rooms as the kitchen and used as such, for sitting, talking, eating or entertaining. The house wastes feed the garden and the garden feeds us... flowers are stuck in vases and dead ones are tossed under the loquat trees as food and mulch; lavender scents the sheets and repels clothes moths and the pyrethrum flowers make our fly spray (the garden, in fact, gives us a lot more than food)... the pergola shields us from the sun and gives us kiwi fruit and chooks scramble round the lot eating a large part of our 'garbage'. and giving eggs and fertiliser, meat and entertainment.

Three areas in particular are a basic part of the house. The first is the courtyard out the back, facing north, and just outside the kitchen door - paved with stone and terraced up the hill. It traps heat in winter - and the heat travels up the stairs into our bedroom and in fact helps warm the entire house. In summer the doors and windows opening onto it are kept closed, except at dusk, when I water the paving so that a cool breeze floods into the house - and the door is left open till the sunlight hits the pavers again the next day. At night the air rises swiftly from the hot stones, creating a breeze that wafts through the house (sometimes too enthusiastically).

The courtyard is a sort of living larder, with tiers of 'every day' vegetables and herbs. I gather a harvest from the courtyard at least twice a day - handfuls of parsley and wild perennial celery and herbs and garlic chives and about twenty sorts of perennial greens, as well as many of the medicinal or useful herbs like aloe vera, gotu kola and sacred basil that form the basis of our household pharmacopaeia. The area is mostly fed from the dust pan detritus from the house - dust pan detritus is usually very high in nutrients - and a bit of manure from the hens once a year.

The second area is the front courtyard - always kept green even in mid-summer (it's very small, so not much water is involved), sheltered by tall trees and vines and hanging baskets of primulas or fuchsias or petunias and parsley. The trees and shrubs are angled so that the wind - which in our valley is either from the north or south, even if it is blowing from the west or east up top - funnels through to the house so that none of the breezes are lost. It's almost always cool in summer, almost always warm in winter, always floriferous, also sweet scented, with a tiny fountain between a dozen sorts of mint for us and the birds (In summer the tinkle of water is incredibly refreshing; in winter most of the mints die back and the fountain glints above hot rocks.)

The third area is to the south. It's our main source of cool air, just as the area to the north is our source of heat. The eaves are wide, the poles are crowded with jasmine and honeysuckle and the space in front is filled with garden beds of moisture lovers like lettuce, celery, mints, silver beet, parsley, ferns. The soil here is always moist, the area is usually semi-shaded and the air passing over it is continually cooled. When we leave the study door open the cool air is dragged in as the hot air is expelled up in the attic. As our winds go north-south we've modified the house so that we have north-south facing doors and other openings too, so we can coax the wind into the house. The main doorway, however, faces east, so that if there's a gale blowing it doesn't blast into the house every time we go in or out.

(This means too that the house smells different every season - of curry bush and jasmine in spring and autumn when the bathroom windows are wide open, of lavender and parsley in winter from the north and mint and lettuce in summer from the south, with a hint of honeysuckle too.)

The house, the garden and ourselves are interdependent, part of each others' lives. Yes, I know that every one and the environment are interdependent - but for us it is a very direct thing, part of our day to day lives. We can never forget our dependence on the world around; we can never close our eyes to our impact on it, or its impact on us.

(This has its bad side too - we get very grouchy in droughts; touchy during bush fire season; gloomy when it's been wet for two months... but there are a lot of highs to compensate.)

Our house is just one of many around here - and even more around Australia - that has been deliberately designed as part of the inhabitants' lives. Such houses and their gardens aren't static - they continually change as the lives of their inhabitants change - vegie gardens that dwindle as their owners get older and kids leave home; decks and paved areas added as the house is (more or less) finished and the inhabitants have more time to sit and watch the view. It can be a shock, sometimes, to visit houses in the suburbs and see how little impact their occupiers have made on them. The 'hand made' or 'home designed' houses here are strikingly individual - though I doubt that any were intended to reflect their owners' dreams and passions, as well as necessity and convenience.

While we were talking to alternative power, water, sewerage and garbage systems owners while writing this book, one of the most striking points was how fond they all were of their systems - as though they were friends or one of the family - perhaps a rich uncle who gave power and other treats, or a mate who didn't quite give all that was needed - but you didn't want to insult because you liked them.... even - in some cases - small children who had to be coaxed and taught- but who showed enormous promise... just another year or two and they'd be right.

All the projects in this book take work and commitment - both financial and emotional. Perhaps it sounds odd to encourage people to take up systems that will cause them more work - and say that they'll find it fulfilling if they do. But whether the people we talked to created their systems for economic, environmental or other reasons, this is what it boiled down to - in the long run, they found it fun.

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