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Comfortable mudbrick on the Southern Highlands

First published 2003 by Russ Grayson.

IT IS WINTER on the Southern Highlands of NSW, a time when the warmth of the sun is weak and the cold south-westerly blows in from the snowfields. Yet, no matter how cold it is outside, to step into the yellow-orange mudbrick glow of this house is to enter an abode of warmth.

This is an owner-built building that uses thoughtful design, renewable technologies such as wind and solar electric power an an efficient wood heater to maintain a comfortable interior climate that costs little to maintain.

The handmade, energy efficient house at penrose Rural Co-op
The handmade, energy efficient house at penrose Rural Co-op

The comfortable mudbrick and timber house on the Southern Highlands is designed to ameliorate summer heat and winter cold.

The sun streams through the north (sunward)-facing glazed doors and into the two greenhouses attached to the northern wall of the structure, in one of which an old Cocker Spaniel reclines in enjoyment of the warmth. A bookshelf divides living room and office and, at the back of the living room, a staircase leads to two upstairs bedrooms. In the kitchen, a wood-fired stove heats the afternoon’s refreshments.

No ordinary house, this. That is obvious as you approach along the wall of the farm dam. Susie and Peter have nestled the mudbrick structure, which they designed and built, into a cutting made in the gentle, north-facing fall to Paddy’s River. Seen on a blustery, cold winter day, the warm hues of mudbrick blend with the brown of the timber upper storey to create the impression of welcome shelter.

Pioneering days – from grazing land to community

It was the late-1970s and Susie and Peter were members of a group of friends that bought the one-time grazing property as a weekend retreat and set about building their mudbrick and timber houses. The property became home to the couple and one of the NSW’s first settlements under the then-new Multiple Occupancy Act.

The only building on-site was a small wooden house that had been home to the previous owner. This they modified by erecting a pergola on the northern side over which a deciduous vine was grown to provide summer shade and to allow through the warming sunlight of winter. Eventually, the building became visitor accommodation.

Oot of sight to the left of the house is a wind turbine and a photovoltaic array that charges a set of battries. The food garden is to the right of the house.
Out of sight to the left of the house is a wind turbine and a photovoltaic array that charges a set of battries. The food garden is to the right of the house.

Soon after acquiring the property work started on a timber building adjacent to the house and the planting of an orchard beyond the paved sitting area that runs along the front of the building. Now, termites and time have made the building unuseable although the orchard continues to yield apples and other fruit suited to the temperate, upland climate.

A procedure for joining the coop was introduced and, over time, Penrose Rural Coop – as the settlement is known – started to grow, with around six houses occupied at present. The newcomers built energy efficient homes of mudbrick or, in the case of carpenter and alternative technology tinkerer, Godfrey Davies, a comfortable house of timber with a raised, round extension inspired by the yurt tents of Mongolia.

Peter works at home, designing and drawing for local architects and clients; Susie drives over to Goulburn jail several times a week where she teaches literacy and life skills to prisoners. Her time at home is spent on cooking, arts and crafts. Both are easy-going people now in middle age, seemingly satisfied in their small community. Their lifestyle is one of simplicity without deprivation; they have some of the luxuries of modern life – stereo, telephone, computer and so on – but none of the excesses. They have been able to work out just how much is enough.

A house that produces its own energy

Most houses are energy sinks, but not this one. It generates its own power from the sun. In the cutting behind the building, adjacent to two large, galvanised iron water tanks (there is no town water supply) sits a large bank of batteries of the type designed to store renewable energy. A cable connects them to a nearby panel of photovoltaic (solar electric) panels and a small wind turbine higher up the slope. An inverter converts the 12-volt current into 240 to power the household’s music, lighting and computer equipment.

Glasshouses are attached to the sunward side of the dwelling to allow heat to flow into the building in winter. A patio for outdoor eating and relaxation and the front entrance fills the space between the glasshouses.

Glashouses facing sunward heat the house in winter.
Glashouses facing sunward heat the house in winter.

Eaves protect the interior from the direct sunlight of summer but the low-angled winter sunlight shines through the glass doors and onto the ceramic tile floor of the living room. On cool evenings, as the temperature falls, the tiles slowly release the heat stored during the day. Even without the wood heater the house can be comfortably warm even though cold winds blow outside.

On the sunward side, an outdoor sitting area separates a greenhouse attached to each end of the building. One of these is fitted with a flat-plate solar water heater and the remaining space is used to start seedlings for early spring planting and as sleeping quarters for the dog.

Some years after finishing their house, Susie and Peter built an adjacent A-frame studio, a timber structure serving as art studio to Susie and accommodation for guests.

A contented lifestyle

At the foot of the ridge over which spills a plantation of radiata pine flows Paddy’s River, a somewhat grand term for what is just a shallow creek. Between the river and the house is grassland, home to an occasional mob of grazing kangaroo – the property is a wildlife sanctuary.

A large vegetable garden separates the house from the grassland and contributes to Susie and Peter’s self-reliance, a necessity here as the nearest shop is a couple kilometres distant.

Life for the couple is not some seeking of self-sufficiency, a nearly impossible task in these times, but a contented sufficiency in food, energy and lifestyle. This they have found amid the eucalypts and grassland on the banks of Paddy’s River.

UPDATE: Peter passed away in the mid-1990s and is missed by all who knew him. Susie continues to live in the mudbrick house and continues her art work.

Builder and Co-op resident, Godfrey Davies, built himself a comfortable yurt. The yupper yurt structure rests on a mudbrick lower level.
Builder and Co-op resident, Godfrey Davies, built himself a comfortable yurt. The upper yurt structure rests on a mudbrick lower level.

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