Drought-Proofing is a Matter of Eco-Design

Editor’s Note: One of our District Councillors recently made statements to our newspaper about his concern for the volume of water our city was using while we have had essentially no rain for a month. By why did he have to say to the reporter, “I don’t want to sound like a greenie…” This is my response in the same newspaper.


“I don’t want to sound like a greenie…”

Why is it that many people in our community – especially elected officials – feel it is necessary to preface common sense statements with this phrase? Is there such antipathy toward the so-called “greenies” among us to warrant this fear of association with them? It is such a constant theme in our local politics that I often wonder how and why it came to be.

Lets take a common sense, conservative concept: wasting a resource is bad. Does anyone disagree with this left, right or centre? But as long as we associate common sense, conservative issues with the left-wing, the farther Whanganui will fall behind progressive councils around the country that are ahead of us already and stretching their leads. If we were truly a “Smart!” city we would embrace eco-design thinking fully and unapologetically to improve the lives of our residents, save money and conserve valuable resources such as water.

Water conservation in the home comes in two forms: efficiency and behaviours. Efficiency can take the form of low-flow showers and taps, dual flush toilets, and appliances that are Water Rated. Behaviours include closing the tap while brushing teeth or shaving, taking short showers, or washing dishes like an Aussie.

But at this time of year, in many cases more water is used outside of the home than inside. I don’t want to sound like a greenie, but there are many ways in which eco-design can be used to develop and manage a drought-resistant property of any size from residential section to lifestyle block. Screen shot 2015-01-31 at 6.43.41 AM

A drought-resistant section in the middle of a drought.

Eco-design as applied to lawns and gardens is about mimicking nature. In other words, we observe how nature is so successful at providing the conditions for life to thrive, and then we copy it.

Any good farmer will tell you that growing plants is all about the soil, so that’s where we’ll begin. Undisturbed, natural soils consist of 50% particles (sand, silt, clay, and humus), 25% air, and 25% water. Put another way, it is half particles and half empty space.

By contrast, most paddocks, lawns and gardens are more like 80% particles and 20% pore space because they have been compacted over many years. Compacted soils do not readily absorb water during rains and result in excessive runoff into streams and rivers, which adds to flooding danger. On the other hand, because the water has flowed across the earth’s surface instead of soaking in, there is less groundwater available during drier months. Groundwater works like a bank account with deposits and withdrawals.

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A swale can help drought-proof a lifestyle block. 

Additionally, compacted soils are largely devoid of life due to the lack of air and water. Where soil life is marginal, many types of plants struggle to survive and require additional inputs of fertilizer, “weed killer”, and irrigation.

From an eco-design perspective, drought-proofing a paddock, lawn or garden is about bringing the soil back to life. Living soils have both good drainage and good water retention. In the long term, healthy soils maintain themselves. Yes, nature will do it on its own but we can jump start the process by breathing life into soils in three simple ways.

First, compacted soils need to be mechanically aerated. A farmer might use a chisel plough where a homeowner would choose a broad fork or sturdy garden fork. Next, the application of lime – one handful per square metre – will raise the pH of soils, which increases microbial activity. Finally, top-dressing with organic matter in the form of composted manure for a paddock or finely sieved compost for a lawn will feed soil organisms.

The same three principles – aerate, raise the pH, add organic matter – can be repeated for vege gardens and perennial beds. Additionally, with regards to water conservation, these can be heavily mulched to reduce soil evaporation.

Both vege gardens and perennial beds can easily be managed as no-dig/no-till areas with healthy soils that maintain themselves, but lawns and paddocks will inevitably receive a certain level of foot and hoof traffic. For these areas a more regular programme of maintenance is required to promote healthy soils, but it all can be done within the realm of eco-design.



Drought-Proof Your Residential Section

Wednesday, 4th February, 5:30-6:30 pm.

Drought-Proof Your Lifestyle Block

Sunday, 8th February, 9:00-11:00 am.

Limited spaces. Registration and deposit essential.

theecoschool – at – gmail.com

Piles of Fun

Someone once told me you can tell a lot about a person by how they spend their Sundays.

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I spent today crawling under my house sistering up piles, adding bearers, and piling under joists where our new wood burner will go.

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Between the spider webs, dead possums, and cat poo, it’s not a fun job.

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But once finished, it is very satisfying knowing that the floor is basically bomb-proof.

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 The Wagener Fairburn weighs 300 kgs, so I put two extra piles directly beneath it. Screen shot 2015-01-25 at 2.39.19 PM

Here is the Fairburn.

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Additionally, a 225 litre hot water cylinder is going in the corner between the two stoves. That is another 250 kgs once full on H2O. I added another pile under there.

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Aside from being intensely satisfying, the other redeeming value of re-piling in the middle of summer is that it is the coolest spot on the property.


Peace, Estwing

Mixing Old and New to Create a Character Bathroom

For regular readers of this column it is obvious that energy efficiency is a major part of eco-thrifty renovation. From an energy perspective, the ‘eco’ need only stand for economic because the financial benefits are so easy to document.

One need not have any green intentions to fully embrace energy efficiency on a purely fiscal basis. The Scrougiest Scrouge and the Grinchiest Grinch should be all over LED light bulbs, insulation, and Energy Star appliances.

The financial payback of many energy efficiency measures gives a better return than the best term deposit available. Additionally, there are the intangible benefits of comfort, health and family well-being.

But there is another aspect of eco-thrifty renovation that does not offer such clear financial payback, and may in some cases cost more than bog standard conventional building practices. This involves reusing materials, which in most cases is labour intensive.

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 If you pay a builder to do it the cost comes in wages. If you do it yourself the cost comes in time. In either case, the costs can often be justified by a unique and beautiful product. Character and craftsmanship are worth paying for in the same way that good artwork is worth paying for.

Personally, I pay in blisters, abrasions, sawdust up my nose, small cuts on my hands, and a sweaty brow. Reusing materials is a labour of love.

Reusing materials forces one to work slowly; to be mindful; to focus on beauty rather than speed. It is a welcome break in a busy world.

One interesting feature in our bathroom came as a result of a clumsy plumber. While placing the basin on top of the porcelin pedestal four years ago, the plumber cracked the top of the pedestal. He slapped a few pieces of black electrical tape on it and left. And so it remained for two years while I completed 267 other projects.

Then one day after my dissertation had been accepted, my family was away, and there were no waves at the North Mole, I crawled under the house and retrieved the rimu studs I had stored there in 2010. On a scale of craftsmanship, this project ranks fairly low, but one great thing about repurposing timber is that imperfections are just part of the character. Beware, however, there is a fine line between character and a dodgy job.

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For this project I framed a shelf under the basin with the rough sawn rimu studs I had pulled out of our walls while reframing and adding insulation. The shelves themselves are dressed rimu from the old hospital in Aramoho that was pulled down last year. I bought it for $1 per metre.

But for me, the coolest feature is the weathered post that conceals the drain – a job previously done by the cracked pedestal.

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I got the post from next door while rebuilding a fence for our neighbour. The totara ‘4-ba-4’ has beautiful raised grain and was weathered to a gorgeous colour by thirty years of coastal winds. I ripped a channel the length of the post and chiseled out the wood to create a cavity just wider than the drainpipe.

In total, the project presents the vintage wood in a contemporary way. Mixing old and new is a style choice that can work well or can totally bomb.

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The age of the timbers are mirrored by the century-old Methven taps in the basin above them. We carried this theme throughout the bathroom with a vintage cast iron claw foot bathtub and reproduction retro taps to echo the Methvens. Screen shot 2015-01-24 at 6.54.47 AM

The vintage basin and tub stand out in the bathroom in part because of their character and in part because of the dark paint on the walls. The high gloss paint is easy to clean and reflects natural sunlight around the room from the giant north-facing windows. The space feels light and roomy, and is always warm even throughout winter. It is a welcoming space in all respects.


Peace, Estwing

Low-Input / High-Performance is a Matter of Design

Last week I described how architect and eco-designer William McDonough worked with the Ford Motor Company starting in 1999 to redevelop the historic River Rouge manufacturing plant in Detroit. While the energy performance of the renovated million square metre facility is impressive in and of itself, what is truly remarkable is that McDonough somehow got William Clay Ford Jr. – great grandson of Henry Ford – to embrace eco-design thinking.

Of course when the win-win-win outcomes of eco-design are so easy to document it should not be difficult to convince reasonable people of its value. Here is how Ford’s charitable trust describes the company’s new outlook:

“Ford’s approach, often referred to as sustainable design, might also be described as high-performance design. A high performance building will:

– Lower annual energy costs

– Lower long-term maintenance costs

– Use non-toxic, easily recycled materials

– Create healthier work environments

– Improve employee productivity

– Improve market image

– Help protect the environment

(Source: TheHenryFord.org)

With a few tweaks to the language used in the list above, our renovated villa in Castlecliff ticks all these boxes. It provides a healthy living environment at low annual energy costs while reducing ecological impacts.

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Lounge Before

As you may recall, I often refer to this as “low-input/high-performance design,” and I apply it to both housing and food production. When people ask me what I do for a living I say, “I design low-input and high-performance systems.” Imagine the looks I get!

Maintaining warm, dry living spaces throughout winter improves the quality of life and financial security for occupants of high-performance homes, which also reduces personal stress and family tension. Research performed in New Zealand by Beacon Pathway found that families who shifted from cold, damp homes to warm, dry, low-energy homes feel better physically and emotionally. Three families interviewed had the following to say:

“Being warmer has made us happier: we were on edge before, and cold. It was a nightmare. This has taken a weight off us.”

“We are happy here, which flows through everything else. Everything has been better since being here.”

“No one has been sick since arriving in the house and we no longer needed our asthma inhalers.”

Those are powerful testimonials, and ironically the opposite of what my family experienced this winter shifting from our warm, dry, low-energy villa to a cold, damp, draughty bungalow. While a change in my employment status (removing the ‘un’) prompted the move, the July timing could not have been worse. Fortunately we had plenty of firewood to get us through until I am able to make the types of improvements that made our villa so cosy.

Drawing on research from Beacon Pathway, BRANZ, EECA, and other housing research organisations, Auckland Council developed a ‘Theory of Change’ document for its Retrofit Your Home programme. The expected outcomes of the programme include:

– Financial savings from decreased electricity consumption

– Improved quality of life and life expectancy

– Increased feeling of satisfaction with living situation

– Improved relationships within the family

– Increased educational achievement

These win-win-win outcomes are clear enough to the largest council in the nation to drive its support for improving the quality of housing for residents. But for some unknown reason, the push for warm, dry, healthy homes struggles to get traction in New Zealand as a whole. I speak with native Kiwis and immigrants all the time about this issue, and to me it is all just a broken record playing over and over again: “there needs to be a major shift in attitudes about housing in this country.”

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Lounge After

For me, the bottom line is quality of life. Our cosy Castlecliff villa provided us with an amazing quality of life for three and a half years and once our new home is improved it will do the same. I feel sorry for the millions of Kiwis living in sub-standard housing and suffering from poor health and emotional strain. But at the end of the day it is up to each one of us to stand up and say, “I am going to improve the living conditions of my family.”


Peace, Estwing

Permaculture Internship

We are offering an internship for the next two months for a very motivated individual interested in learning aspects of permaculture design and land management, organic horticulture and agriculture, animal husbandry, and eco-renovation. The internship is free with accommodation and meals included, but we expect a lot of work in return: some stimulating and some mundane. All serious inquiries should be directed to me. Feel free to pass this along to interested parties. 

Over the last four years we have developed a premier example of a suburban permaculture property. We are now in the process of doing the same on a 5 hectare farm. Below are some examples of projects we have going.

Here is a hugelkultur swale we have been building.

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Here is a small commercial garlic crop.

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Hanging to dry. Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.22.27 AM

 This is an example of alley cropping with chooks. Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.23.20 AM

Here we are tractoring chooks through a young food forest.

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This little chook is raising these 5 orphaned ducklings.

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Minor breed sheep and water harvesting.

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We are renovating the kitchen.

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And always adding insulation.

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Peace, Estwing

Eco-Design Saved “The Rouge”

Editor’s Note: This is a regular column that appears in our city’s newspaper, The Wanganui Chronicle.


I always get a kick out of walking down Victoria Avenue or riding my bike on Puriri Street and seeing someone wearing a basketball jersey of the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers. I picture in my mind the reverse: youths in Boston and Los Angeles sporting their Warriors or Crusaders kit. It is good for a chuckle.

I am especially impressed on the rare occasion of passing someone on the streets of our River City supporting my hometown Detroit Pistons. So you will understand my pleasure upon opening last Saturday’s Chronicle to find a full-page story on the Motor City.

Appropriately placed at the top of the page was a photograph of a group of students sitting in front of a massive Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I remember all those decades ago taking a school trip to the DIA and being completely overwhelmed by the Rivera murals that depict the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge manufacturing plant at the time of their painting in the early 1930s. Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.14.57 AM

 On the 2,000 acre site, 93 buildings covered 1.5 million square metres and had 150 kilometres of conveyors. Iron ore went in one end and finished cars came out the other. 100,000 men worked at the plant while Rivera painted his murals. “The Rouge” had a fully staffed hospital, a fire department and a police force. It was the largest single industrial complex in the world.

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By the time I visited the DIA in the late 1970s the Rouge itself was on hard times. The work force had plummeted to under 10,000 and drug use was rampant among them. The quality of Ford vehicles had declines and Japanese imports were in the ascendant. My family was unlucky enough to have purchased a Ford Pinto that was plagued with mechanical problems.

By the early 1990s the plant was on the brink of closure. And then something amazing happened: Eco-design saved the Rouge.

In 1999, Architect William McDonough (the subject of last week’s column) entered into an agreement with Ford Motor Company for a major eco-thrifty renovation of the aged facility. The cornerstone of the renovation was a 10-acre (four hectare) living roof planted mostly to low-growing sedum, which retains and cleans rainwater while buffering the temperature inside the plant in both winter and summer. Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.19.22 AM

While the living roof saves Ford on both heating and cooling costs, the major savings were realized by the role it plays as part of an $18 million storm water system designed to handle 76 million cubic metres of water annually. This innovative system also includes a series of swales, reconstructed wetlands, the world’s largest porous parking lot, and hundreds of newly planted trees.

From day one, this eco-design option for treating rainwater saved Ford $32 million because the mainstream option of mechanical treatment would have cost $50 million.

Another role that re-vegetation efforts play on the site is through phytoremediation – a process by which plants and soil microbes break down contaminants and render them harmless. This approach is much cheaper than the other option Ford was facing of trucking contaminated soils off to landfill. Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.22.07 AM

Finally, McDonough has worked with Ford to improve the natural day lighting, ventilation, and energy efficiency of the plant while saving them even more money. This from TheHenryFord.org:

“Ford’s approach, often referred to as sustainable design, might also be described as high-performance design. A high performance building will:

– Lower annual energy costs

– Lower long-term maintenance costs

– Use non-toxic, easily recycled materials

– Create healthier work environments

– Improve employee productivity

– Attract talented recruits

– Improve market image

– Help protect the environment

“The Rouge is not only being rebuilt, it’s being re-imagined as a model of sustainable manufacturing – a workplace that helps protect the environment for future generations while it inspires a new paradigm.”

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To me this is inspiring stuff, and I can see its application throughout our city. As yet we have not been able to get into gear, but here’s hoping one day these types of ideas will get traction and with the engagement of a broad cross-section of our community we can get the pistons humming.


Peace, Estwing

Waste Management: Biological and Technical Nutrients

William McDonough is a designer, architect and author. I reckon he is one of the greatest thinkers of our age. If you are a person who gets inspired by TED Talks or the RSA Animate website, you will be over the moon with McDonough. Google his name and you’ll see what I mean.

Central to McDonough’s philosophy is a simple maxim: waste equals food. The first time one hears this statement may be a little jarring. But take a moment and think of compost in a garden or leaf litter on the forest floor. What McDonough means is that the ‘leftovers’ of one process serve as fuel for another process. In nature there is no end-of-the-line, no landfill.

Using nature as his design inspiration, McDonough advocates for two ways by which materials should flow through industrial society. He identifies all stuff as either ‘biological nutrients’ or ‘technical nutrients.’ Biological nutrients are those that come from nature and can be returned via composting or similar biological processes over and over again.  Screen shot 2015-01-03 at 6.53.05 AM

Biological nutrients ready to return to the earth.

 Technical nutrients include things like metals, minerals and plastics. McDonough argues that all inorganic (non-living) and synthetic materials should be designed for infinite and easy recycling indefinitely.

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Some technical nutrients we found at the beach. 

The problem arises when biological and technical nutrients are mixed into what McDonough calls “monstrous hybrids,” which are very difficult to recycle or compost because of the mixture of materials with totally different properties. An example of this is a Tetra Brik ‘juice box’ with layers of aluminium foil, cardboard and plastic.

McDonough is the kind of person who would design a wastewater treatment plant for our city where so-called “sludge” is a valuable resource instead of an expensive liability. He would scoff at spending close to a million dollars on a silly, useless “odour fence.” (Where was he when we needed him!)

Using the same types of design thinking as McDonough, a very small team has helped develop an exceptionally successful waste management programme for public events in our community. You may have noticed our Big Green Flags at Connecting Families Day, Children’s Day, and Castlecliff Children’s Day. Screen shot 2015-01-03 at 6.53.23 AM

Children’s Day at Springvale Stadium.

I hope it goes without saying that we should be exhibiting positive behaviours in front of children at all of these events. One of the first things that my daughter taught me is that children are great imitators. If we engage in ‘dumpster mentality’ as a community then we are setting up our children for the same.

But littlies are not the only ones who can learn. Even the ‘old dogs’ that make the biannual pilgrimage to Springvale Park for the NZ Masters Games can learn new tricks. In 2013, a small, organised team was able to divert over 95% of the Games waste from landfill. To put this in perspective, the total volume of material that would have filled 20 jumbo dumpsters in 2011 was reduced to one in 2013.

Put another way, the equivalent of 19 jumbo dumpsters of glass, plastic, paper, cardboard and food scraps that were trucked to Bonny Glen and buried ‘forever’ in the ground in 2011 were recycled and composted in 2013.

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Castlecliff Children’s Day. 

How was it done? Simple, really. Technical nutrients (mostly glass and plastic bottles) were recycled while biological nutrients (food scraps, serviettes, paper plates, bowls and cups, beer boxes, etc) were composted. The success of this effort brought widespread attention to our city and what this extraordinary programme had accomplished. Just last week I was contacted by two people from other centres who wanted to learn more.

If you would like to be a part of the waste minimisation effort at the 2015 Games, please contact the NZMG office at the Wanganui Events Trust office at Springvale Park. 06 349 1815 or email at info@nzmg.com. Please specify that you want to volunteer for the Zero Waste programme.


Peace, Estwing



World’s Best Garlic

2015 Permaculture Principles Calendar

Available today at the REBS (River Exchange and Barter System) stall at the River Traders Market.