City cornucopia

Neat rows of raised garden beds already crammed with vegetables and leafy greens is not what you’d normally expect to find in the middle of a new housing development, but that’s what greets you at The Cape, a sustainable housing project on the edge of coastal Cape Paterson, two hours drive south-east of Melbourne.

A glance at the master plan for the development shows that these beds are just the beginning of what will eventually be a 5,000-square-metre garden, with herb beds, a berry garden, orchard, composting and potting benches. The produce grown will supply a cafe and community centre as well as feeding the garden members – interested residents and other locals. “There will be space for 100 gardeners, and we estimate that the garden will produce more than $150,000 worth of produce each year,” says Brendan Condon, the entrepreneur and sustainability advocate behind The Cape.

But while the garden will provide its members with the opportunity to reduce their living costs through avoided food spend, it’s about much more than that; it’s part of a burgeoning urban agriculture movement that’s aiming to bring food production back closer to where we live, reducing the environmental impact of the food we eat and helping address looming food security issues.

It’s an aspect of sustainable living that is often ignored, but as our cities expand and encroach into the surrounding food bowls, peri-urban agricultural areas are being pushed further out, leading to increased transportation distances and greater vulnerability to food supply disruptions for more people. “Projections suggest that the proportion of Melbourne’s food supply that is locally produced will drop from 41 per cent today to less than 20 per cent by 2050,” says Brendan. “But there are huge opportunities to grow food in cities, and awareness of the need and the possibilities is increasing.”

Internationally, urban agriculture gives the sense of being the new ‘clean tech’; in North America and Europe, the sector is seeing a proliferation of startups employing high-tech, intensive methods to produce food in cities. Part of the 100 Resilient Cities Network, New Jersey startup AeroFarms grows leafy greens in trays stacked 11 metres high in a former steel plant; Urban Produce in California uses a similar vertical farm setup and a computer-controlled LED lighting and watering system to grow sixteen acres of food on an eighth of an acre of floor space. Even Kimbal Musk, brother to Tesla’s electric car and clean energy entrepreneur Elon, is getting in on the action with an ‘urban farming accelerator’ called Square Roots, consisting of 10 small ‘test’ farms set up in shipping containers, where young entrepreneurs can try out their urban farming ideas.

In Finland, Exsilio is also using the shipping container model for its ekoFARMER ‘farming module’, “a closed system that is delivered as a turn-key solution that only requires a location, water and electricity outlet”. They claim the yield achievable with their modules will be at least three times that of a standard greenhouse, as plants are stacked over several levels and can be grown all year round with a reduced cultivation period due to the optimal control of light and humidity the system makes possible. At over 100,000 Euros ($150,000) though, it could be a challenge to make the operation of an ekoFARMER profitable.

Although a catch-cry of the industry is ‘turning factories into farms instead of farms into factories’, there’s a lot more to urban agriculture than high-tech, climate-controlled factory style production. Australia’s Urban Agriculture Forum (UAF) defines the term as any food production – including vegetable and fruit growing, livestock raising (especially poultry), beekeeping, aquaculture and hydroponics – in suburban areas, regional centres, cities and towns; “it does not include larger-scale irrigated and broad-acre farming.” It encompasses commercial, community and individual food production on a variety of sites from private backyards and other private land to community gardens, rooftops, public spaces such as nature strips, and the grounds of schools, hospitals and other institutions.

It’s at the lower-tech end that Brendan sees the biggest opportunities. “To grow, plants need light, water, space, and nutrients. There is plenty of all of these available in cities.” He notes that traditional city design involved systems to move stormwater and waste out of them efficiently, and food bowls around the edges. “Population growth and urban expansion are putting increasing pressure on both, but if you can build low-tech, smart food-producing architecture to intercept a city’s water and food waste streams, then you can start producing huge amounts of food.”

Through business Biofilta, Brendan is developing ‘closed loop’ wicking bed garden systems that aim to break down the three critical areas of individual resistance to getting ‘hands-on’ with food production: lack of time, space and expertise. Connected to a rainwater tank, the snap-together beds store water in their bases that’s ‘wicked’ up through the soil to the plant roots as they need it; no daily watering is needed and water efficiency is greatly improved. The subsurface watering also means that a light crust forms at the soil surface, inhibiting weed growth. “The idea is that the beds tip the balance in favour of busy urbanites, by dramatically reducing the watering and weeding required,” says Brendan. “Wicking bed technology has of course been around for a while, but we’re scaling it up. We’re designing quick-to-assemble urban farms that can turn waste streams into resources: they intercept local stormwater and food waste through compost, and produce serious quantities of food for minimal gardening effort.”

Biofilta’s 40-square-metre ‘household farm’ concept consists of snap-together wicking modules that allow a larger number of people to grow substantial quantities of produce with minimal weeding and watering effort. The system is scaleable up or down to suit a variety of urban spaces including smaller backyards, rooftop gardens, schools and community centres. Image: Biofilta, www.biofilta.com.au

Biofilta’s 40-square-metre ‘household farm’ concept consists of snap-together wicking modules that allow a larger number of people to grow substantial quantities of produce with minimal weeding and watering effort. The system is scaleable up or down to suit a variety of urban spaces including smaller backyards, rooftop gardens, schools and community centres. Image: Biofilta, www.biofilta.com.au

Brendan’s business partner Marc Noyce has calculated that when connected to a 10,000 litre rainwater tank collecting from a 200-square-metre Melbourne roof, the water demand of a 40-square-metre Biofilta ‘household farm’ can be met almost entirely with rainwater, and the property’s stormwater outflow will also be reduced by an estimated 70 per cent. “If everyone did it, issues like flooding in the streets would be significantly reduced, and current pipe assets would provide a greater level of service,” he says. A garden this size could produce around 640kg of vegetables each year, enough for the recommended dietary consumption of five adults, and provide the opportunity for food sharing within the neighbourhood and extended family.

At Pocket City Farms, a not-for-profit Sydney enterprise that aims to make use of the city’s unused spaces to grow organic produce, the community building and education aspect of urban farming is as important as the food production. They run a program of workshops and events to empower and encourage locals. For urban dwellers, “it is so easy to take food for granted,” explains general manager Emma Bowen. “Food that you have a connection with is much more precious. Anyone that’s grown their own produce at home knows this, and knowing our farmers also creates this connection: we see the effort in producing the food and understand the necessity to provide fair payment to the farmer in order for them to be able to continue growing good clean food, and to continue to nourish the soil it’s grown in. It helps to ensure food growing is a viable occupation, creating resilience in our food systems into the future.”

Sydney not-for-profit Pocket City Farms opened its first urban farm in Camperdown in 2016. “At its most basic, creating places to connect with our food growing in the city is providing productive places for the community to gather, learn some new skills, meet some new people and get their hands dirty,” says general manager Emma Bowen. Images courtesy Pocket City Farms & Ben Symons

Sydney not-for-profit Pocket City Farms opened its first urban farm in Camperdown in 2016. “At its most basic, creating places to connect with our food growing in the city is providing productive places for the community to gather, learn some new skills, meet some new people and get their hands dirty,” says general manager Emma Bowen. Images courtesy Pocket City Farms & Ben Symons

Pocket City Farms’ first urban farm, on the former Camperdown Bowling Club site, opened in 2016 after several years of planning. Emma would like to see better support from government and local councils: “Policies and incentives to encourage land and building owners to unlock their unused land and rooftop spaces would provide encouragement – access to space and trust and interest from those who can make this space available is one of the biggest barriers.” At a government level, local councils are starting to see the importance of urban food production for resilient communities, and the benefits of fostering an increased awareness of the links between food, health and living more sustainably. To pick just a couple of examples, the City of Sydney has developed Sydney City Farm, an urban agriculture project in Sydney Park that features food gardens, a farmers’ market and workshops on topics like edible small space gardening and edible gardening for renters; a community hub, an orchard and even a small cropping area are planned for the future.

Down south, the City of Melbourne’s Rooftop Project has identified almost 240 hectares of rooftops in the municipality that have the potential to house intensive green roofs; this could include sky-high urban agriculture projects. It can be a slow process to get initiatives like urban food production included in strategy, but the City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Fund – while primarily focussed on greening the walls and rooftops of the city – has some support for innovative urban food if it can be linked to wider community benefits and outcomes. The city is also currently reviewing its Urban Food Policy.

Also in Melbourne, Yarra City Council developed one of the first urban agriculture strategies in Australia, and has appointed an Urban Agriculture Facilitator to implement it. Due to concerns about contaminated soils in this inner-city area, Yarra doesn’t encourage traditional verge gardens; instead, the Strategy focuses on planter boxes on footpaths, in unused laneways, and in other public spaces. It was developed in response to strong community demand, and to manage the fact that residents were already installing gardens in the streets. Now, there are guidelines in place to ensure planter boxes are located in places that are safe for cars, cyclists and pedestrians, and there’s an application process for the boxes, which are provided by the council. The facilitator also runs workshops on gardening and fostering community connections for interested residents, with the aim of making the most of the community building, mental health, waste management and environmental benefits of urban agriculture.

The City of Yarra’s Urban Agriculture Strategy focuses on the safe installation of planter boxes on footpaths and verges, as the inner-city area has soil contamination issues. Recently, new guidelines for gardens in unused laneways were also introduced. Images courtesy Yarra City Council

The City of Yarra’s Urban Agriculture Strategy focuses on the safe installation of planter boxes on footpaths and verges, as the inner-city area has soil contamination issues. Recently, new guidelines for gardens in unused laneways were also introduced. Images courtesy Yarra City Council

Implementing constructive urban agriculture policies isn’t all plain sailing for local governments, though. The competing priorities of residents and councils, and concerns over safety and liability issues, require careful negotiation and can cause clashes. Recently, in the well-known Urban Food Streets precinct of Buderim, QLD, where many residents have planted productive gardens and fruit trees on their verges for all to share, a standoff over a council requirement for permits and liability insurance led to sensational headlines when the Sunshine Coast Council demolished a number of the gardens. Other councils have successfully sidestepped this particular issue; for example, in the WA City of Bayswater, red tape was deliberately removed so that residents are able to plant whatever they like on their verges without needing a permit or insurance, as long as they follow a one-page guideline document.

Well-designed urban food gardens have been shown to improve the value of nearby properties. One study in New York found that a community garden can raise neighbouring property values by as much as 9 per cent within five years of the garden’s opening; “This makes them desirable green infrastructure for both property developers and homeowners,” says Brendan. He believes that all new housing developments should have a food production plan – something that Heather and Neil Barrett, the drivers of another Victorian project, The Paddock Eco Village in Castlemaine, are already embracing.

The Paddock will consist of 27 homes built on 1.4 hectares of bushland that’s been owned by the Barretts for over 30 years. “Along with wetlands and native gardens, around a third of the total space will be dedicated to food growing, with shared food gardens and orchards,” says Neil. “We’re keen gardeners ourselves, and feel that growing food at home is one thing people actually can do to combat climate change. Our development will give residents a chance to do something on the ground, in their own small way.”

The gardens are also an important component of the development’s design to meet the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a rigorous performance standard that calls for the creation of “regenerative spaces that connect occupants to light, air, food, nature and community, that are self-sufficient, and that remain within the resource limits of the site”. Provision for urban agriculture is one of the LBC’s 20 ‘imperatives’. In addition, the food garden’s wicking beds and other garden areas will allow greywater to be filtered and used on site, and negotiations are underway with the local water authority to site a small blackwater treatment system on the property too – along with rainwater collection and reuse, these measures will go a long way to meeting the LBC’s requirement for waste and water management. [For more on LBC see Caroline Pidcock’s article on zero emissions buildings in Sanctuary 40.]

Only just launched, and with construction expected to begin in early 2018, it’s yet to be seen exactly how the gardens at The Paddock will operate. “We’re putting in place the infrastructure, and then we’ll be listening to how the future residents would like to run it,” says Neil. “We just know that 35 per cent of the land will be devoted to food growing – how it actually happens will be determined along with the future residents.”

Built to Living Building Challenge standards, the Illawarra Flame House at the University of Wollongong incorporates local food production as an important design element. You can visit this award-winning building on Sustainable House Day 2017.

Built to Living Building Challenge standards, the Illawarra Flame House at the University of Wollongong incorporates local food production as an important design element. You can visit this award-winning building on Sustainable House Day 2017.

No matter how enthusiastically we embrace urban food production and how much savvy technology we bring to it, it’s not going to replace traditional rural agriculture. There are some things – like broadacre crops – that aren’t feasible in an urban setting. However, as our urban populations grow, finding ways to bring a significant proportion of our food production closer to where we live is important for community wellbeing and for the creation of true sustainable cities. As Brendan says, “Everyone’s aware of the food miles concept; we need to reduce the miles to food metres.”


There are five homes at The Cape, near Cape Paterson in Victoria, opening for Sustainable House Day on Sunday 17 September, 2017. Read more >

The Illawarra Flame House at the University of Wollongong is also open on Sustainable House Day. Read more >


Feature image: The first of the planned 300 raised wicking beds in the community garden at The Cape, outside Victoria’s Cape Paterson, are already producing vegies. Developer Brendan Condon (pictured at left, with Cape resident Tad Henry) says the finished garden will have space for 100 gardeners. The produce that’s grown could save each of them up to $1,500 per year in avoided food spend – plus the food miles involved are reduced to food metres. Image: Warren Reed

Many happy returns: 21 years of solar

Solar PV systems are now so ubiquitous in Australia it’s strange to think back to the time when they were a cutting-edge novelty. And yet recently when I visited Stuart McQuire and Wendy Orams’ West Brunswick house, my mind was taken straight back to the turn of the century. The last time I was at their place was 2002 – John Howard was prime minister and the Kyoto Protocol remained unratified. Like half of the other adults in the country, I still didn’t have a mobile phone.

Outwardly, their unpretentious 1929 Californian bungalow hasn’t changed much. The house is attractively surrounded with a mixture of native and productive trees. And the original 2kW of PV panels – the first to be connected to the electricity grid in Victoria – are visible on the red-tiled roof, albeit with a trim of lichen. This time though, instead of the sustainability features setting it apart from others on the street, just being a single freestanding house is what makes it conspicuous. Recent planning changes have rezoned heights in the area to four storeys.

“This street’s definitely in transition,” says Wendy. “My dad can remember catching the tram in the 1920s and this area was market gardens. It then became a suburban residential street with single house lots with garden around them. When we moved in there were already a lot of flats and units, but progressively the houses have disappeared and now there only a few on each side of the street.”

They originally bought the house with like-minded friends with a shared interest in environmental activism. Their central lounge room, now a quiet haven naturally lit through double-glazed skylights, became a meeting place for the couple’s various campaign interests, including the Rainforest Action Group through which they’d met in the 1980s.

“For a while our house was a hotbed of environmental and nonviolent activism,” laughs Wendy. “I had a new baby and it was great; I wasn’t one of those isolated young mums, we were having meetings all the time.”

Rainforest Action Group was part of the movement to halt tropical rainforest deforestation through disrupting the importation of timbers for use in the building industry. The global campaign successfully led to the establishment of the respected Forest Stewardship Council in Germany in 1993, and a range of other consumer transparency measures for paper and timber building products. “At that point pretty much every house in Australia was using rainforest timbers. The idea was to draw attention to that,” says Stuart.

Solar serendipity 

How they came to be the second household in Australia to connect solar panels to the grid is really a story of serendipity. They’d heard of grid-connected solar via ReNew magazine, and in 1994 jumped on board with the local Brunswick Electricity Supply Department’s Aurora Project, which was experimenting with PV at CERES Environment Park. It had advertised for households to take part in a partly-funded trial.

Stuart and Wendy made contact and negotiated to pay a quarter of the 2kW system’s $20,000 price tag, a deal that was honoured when power retailer CitiPower compulsorily acquired the progressive Brunswick ESD the following year. “Even though we didn’t pay the full cost, the $5000 we put up was about 20 per cent of our family income that year,” says Wendy. “We didn’t own a car and could have bought one with that money, but we preferred to have solar panels.”

The panels were installed in September 1995, but generated nothing for the first six months. “They actually started operating on 4 April 1996,” says Stuart. “We went through the whole summer without them operating because there was no Australian Standard for the grid connection. CitiPower needed to work out how to do it, basically, and make sure their engineers were happy with how it was done.”

As part of the trial, they committed to opening the house to the public six times a year for three years. That sounds onerous enough, but they actually kept the tours going for many years beyond what they’d agreed. “We wanted to live in a way that matched our values so it made sense to make our home more environmentally sustainable,” says Wendy. “And, from an activist point of view, it was way easier doing open houses than getting arrested and locked up!”

Over the next decade thousands of people saw the house and its solar PV and hot water systems. Through Victoria’s drought years, public interest turned towards their water efficiency expertise. They have a beautiful permaculture garden, 20,000 litres of rainwater storage and a customised greywater system that, for a time, allowed them to all but disconnect from mains water.

“When we were doing publicity in the early days, the biggest question was ‘how long until the solar will pay itself off?’. It made sense, but we never considered that was important at all. You buy a new car and you don’t expect it to pay for itself. Or carpet. You decide on the quality and what you want it to do,” says Wendy.

“But it’s actually turned out to be something that has paid for itself. This really hit home in the global financial crisis when a lot of people lost a third of the money they had, and we had put our money into water tanks, water recycling and all these solar panels and so we had very few bills and all that investment was paying for itself.”

While the number of residences with solar remained small between 1996 and 2008, Australia soon started to experience a PV boom. The global retail price suddenly halved from the $12 to $14 per watt for the early solar power systems, to around $6 per watt. The plummeting solar cost curve coincided with the introduction of feed-in tariffs. Until then, early adopters had effectively received the standard retail price for electricity when their mechanical meters ran backwards.

The chart tracks three trends in solar energy system pricing and installation in Australia. The black line shows the major shifts in the price of installed solar PV in dollars per watt from 1996 to 2017. The green shading indicates the cumulative number of residential rooftop systems since the first were installed around 1996. The red shows Victoria’s feed-in tariff rates in cents per kilowatt-hour (the dotted line indicates when meters ran backwards, effectively delivering a feed in tariff at the retail rate).

The chart tracks three trends in solar energy system pricing and installation in Australia. The black line shows the major shifts in the price of installed solar PV in dollars per watt from 1996 to 2017. The green shading indicates the cumulative number of residential rooftop systems since the first were installed around 1996. The red shows Victoria’s feed-in tariff rates in cents per kilowatt-hour (the dotted line indicates when meters ran backwards, effectively delivering a feed in tariff at the retail rate).

When Victoria introduced a feed-in tariff of 60 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2009, Stuart and Wendy installed a second 1.5kW system, in case they wanted to run an electric vehicle in future. With the two systems combined, they began to earn a modest income. “We get the premium feed-in tariff for both systems. In the last 12 months we received a $1400 credit, after the supply charges,” says Stuart.

Even for those that came in late, the economics of solar in 2017 has never been better. In some states a quarter of homes already have rooftop solar systems and current installed prices range from $2 to $1 per watt (and lower for really large home systems). After years of dropping steadily, on 1 July 2017 Victoria’s feed-in tariff increased again. Other states are already starting to follow suit, including many retailers in NSW that have recently doubled what they pay for solar exports, heralding a second solar boom.

Damien Moyse, ATA’s policy manager, says continuing technology cost reductions and increases to the wholesale price of electricity are driving new investment, and the trend now is towards much larger systems. “With feed-in tariffs going back up over 10 cents per kilowatt-hour and prices for electricity from the grid jumping by around 20 per cent in the past six months, the economic value of solar PV is now less sensitive to how much solar electricity is exported to the grid,” he says. “We are finding three and four year payback times on 10kW residential systems, providing tens of thousands of dollars worth of value over their lifetimes.”

Open house celebration 

To mark their 21 years with solar energy and the rooftop revolution they helped get started, Stuart and Wendy are having a celebration, of sorts. For the first time in years, they are opening to the public for Sustainable House Day 2017, on Sunday 17 September.

The house has never been fully renovated but Wendy and Stuart have continued to update appliances, lighting and other fittings as new technology has become available, in line with their values and commitment to energy efficiency. They’ve reinsulated, replaced the old windows with double glazing and installed an efficient reverse-cycle system for heating. Well before incandescent globes were phased out, they’d moved over to compact fluorescents, and now to LEDs.

ATA CEO Donna Luckman says what they have achieved demonstrates the cumulative benefit of small improvements, and reflects the journey of many ATA members. “You don’t need to build a new home or do a major renovation to have an impact. Wendy and Stuart are a great example of this and what we all can do by making incremental changes.”

The ATA used the experiences of solar pioneers like Wendy and Stuart to advocate to government, industry bodies and energy retailers to provide guidelines, codes and regulations to simplify the process of grid connection. “We’re now on the way to two million households in Australia with rooftop solar that will have benefitted from their experiences,” says Donna.

The personal has always been political for Stuart and Wendy. They haven’t let themselves be distracted by Australia’s dizzying number of energy policy changes and uncertainties that have held back climate action for years. The very same panels and inverter that were operating when the mandatory renewable energy target was introduced in 2001 are still going strong today as Professor Alan Finkel’s proposed clean energy target is debated. Thinking back, would they do anything differently?

“I would have liked to connect the house better to the back garden,” laughs Wendy. “But it’s been clear to us for a while now that if we move out of here this house and land will be bought by a developer and the house will be bulldozed, so it’s not worth over-capitalising in the house. But we still want to continue with making it a house that we love living in,” she says.

“Not everyone can do things for the long term and we couldn’t have predicted for sure we’d be here together after 25 years. But for us the whole journey’s been a really good example of how thinking and investing in the long term is generally beneficial and worthwhile.”


 

This house is open on Sustainable House Day, Sunday 17 September 2017. Read more >


 

Find open houses near you – Sustainable House Day

It’s all happening on Sunday, 17 September 2017 – there will be over 170 houses open around the country, including this 10-Star home at The Cape eco-village in Victoria.

Find houses near you >

This unique peer-to-peer education is a valuable resource for anyone looking for inspiration, ideas and the key to sustainable living. Registrations are now open for attendees and for those who’d like to open their homes on the day.

Read more and register >

And keep your eye out for Sanctuary 40, out in mid-August: it’s a Sustainable House Day special issue, and we’ll be giving you a sneak peek at some of the inspiring homes that will be opening this year.

Sanctuary 40 out now

Nothing can quite replace the experience of being inside a well-designed space. And the strength of public interest in open houses shows it’s not only me who thinks so! One of the most successful open house events in Australia is the annual Sustainable House Day, which is unique in its national focus on sustainable residential buildings. This year the award-winning event, run by the Alternative Technology Association, promises to be larger and more ambitious than ever. Over 170 homes and gardens will participate across the country and it’s expected almost 20,000 people will take the opportunity on Sunday 17 September to tour a house in their area, and speak with the owners and designers.

To give you a taste for the outstanding quality of houses on show, Sanctuary 40 previews nine private residences you can inspect on the day – including some never before open to the public. In Brisbane, you can visit the spectacularly renovated Garden Room House (p24) with its roof garden and a swimming pool that’s been converted into a hydronic heating/cooling system and, in metro Melbourne, a certified Passive House is throwing open its doors (p62). There is also an impressive number of regional homes to see, including two newly completed projects in NSW: a 9.8 Star house in Carwoola and a stylish container getaway on the south coast (p18 and this issue’s cover feature; design by Matt Elkan and photo by Simon Whitbread). We’re excited that some of the event’s most popular houses are re-opening. A high-tech limestone beauty in Fremantle attracted over 330 people last year when it was still mid-build; now finished, owners Alice and Greg can’t wait to share it again with their local community (p36). And veteran hosts Stuart McQuire and Wendy Orams will mark 21 years with solar PV – an impressive milestone indeed (p80).

Have a look inside Sanctuary 40

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE …
We detail the latest ATA advice for solar sizing; Anna Cumming investigates how urban agriculture can help feed our cities; and Lance Turner and Dick Clarke put windows in the frame. The challenge of selecting environmentally sustainable materials affects everyone, and so we ask Verity Campbell to find out how the experts go about this tricky business.

Thank you to everyone who has shared their homes with us this issue, and to all who are opening theirs up on Sustainable House Day. To find one near you, head to the event website.

Sanctuary 40 is on its way to letterboxes and newsagencies near you, full of advice and inspiration for sustainable living and building.

And as always we feature a wide range of innovative sustainable products and design tips for your home.

We welcome your feedback. Perhaps there’s something else you would you like to see in Sanctuary? Let us know on FacebookTwitter or by email.