All together now
From Sanctuary issue 10. More articles like this
By Fiona Negrin
Excerpt: Lilting bird song, stately river red gums and abundant foliage give the impression that we’re far from civilisation. So it’s a pleasant surprise to realise that the local shops and train station are a ten-minute walk away. Gently perched in the landscape, so modest you don’t notice them at first, are eight small homes. Welcome to Munro Court, a sustainable housing development in the old Victorian gold mining town of Castlemaine.
“The idea was to build very small houses with a modern feel but rustic aesthetic; homes settled in Australian bush gardens,” says designer Robyn Gibson of Lifehouse Design. The development was initiated by a local couple, Sue Turner and Don Wild, whose vision was to build a cluster of energy-efficient modern houses that harmonised with the landscape. Social sustainability would be a key criterion, as would the potential for elderly people to downsize in comfort and age in place. Sue and Don teamed up with Robyn Gibson and Paul Hassall of Lifehouse Design, and Sue’s son Sam Cox of Sam Cox Landscaping, to turn the vision into reality.
Although the houses are placed quite close to each other, they don’t have boundary fences, so strategic design was employed to instil a sense of seclusion. “All living areas face onto the sleeping and bathing areas of the neighbouring house, so nobody’s living areas look into any others,” says Robyn. “Additionally, there are screens, earth mounds and plantings between houses to provide privacy.”
Robyn and Paul worked closely with Sam to harmonise the houses with the landscape. The homes, none of which is larger than 150 square metres (the average new home is around 240 square metres), share an unobtrusive colour scheme of soft grey and tan, and are built with natural materials of bricks and timber, including Cypress Macrocarpa reclaimed from farm windbreaks. Remnant old trees frame the plantings, which are all local species. Robyn muses, “The whole court is filled with foliage – you look at the gardens, not the houses”. Thanks to appropriate species choice and generous mulching, the plants have thrived in a climate of increasingly drier winters and hotter summers.
Living at Munro Court are young families, couples and single retirees. One of the latter is Win, who volunteers at the University of the Third Age and enjoys bushwalking. Win wasn’t especially looking for an environmentally sustainable home, but she was charmed by the house. “I walked into this room and I just thought, it’s so beautiful, so full of light. And the finishes, the colours, so much thought has gone into details and the fittings.”
Win also appreciated the house’s roominess. “A small space can be well used. There’s tons of storage. Big windows and high ceilings give a sense of spaciousness. It’s a small house but it feels like a big house because it has the right proportions.” Within three hours of seeing the house, she’d bought it.
Win has since become a convert to sustainable living. “The ecological design isn’t something that I was looking for but I’m totally thrilled with it because it works so well.” In winter, the morning sun pours into her north-facing windows and “ten minutes later, the living room is warm”. Castlemaine is notorious for its extreme temperatures. Win says she looked at old houses but “they had no north-facing windows, and their bi-monthly gas bill was $600. I didn’t want that. This house is efficient to run. My biggest bi-monthly gas bill in winter was $80, and I was never cold.”
To compensate for Castlemaine’s frosty winters, the houses at Munro Court have large, north-facing double-glazed windows and high levels of insulation to keep the heat in. Concrete slab floors help maintain a stable temperature even on the chilliest nights, and gas heating boosts warmth when needed. Summers can be scorchers, but there’s no need for active cooling in the houses because external awnings and pergolas offer shade, while doors and windows can be flung open and ceiling fans operated to move cool air through the house.
Munro Court cheerfully fulfils its brief of social sustainability. Robyn and Win finish each others’ sentences as they list the occasions that bring neighbours together: to have drinks when a new person moves in; to hold fire management meetings; and to participate in revegetation working bees. Residents share responsibility for tending the communal vegie garden, emptying the compost and feeding the chooks. Sometimes they dine together. And it happens entirely organically.
“One of the really nice things here is that there’s no formal organisation for any jobs to be done,” says Win. “People ask me, ‘who owns the chooks? Do you have rosters? Do you have a vegie bed each?’ but it’s not organised like that. People pitch in when they have time and we all share produce. Elderly neighbours who can’t contribute to the garden still share eggs and vegetables from the garden. It’s very pleasing and generous.”