About the Moora Moora community
The story of my house, with a few pics from 2004
...and in 2014
I've been extracted from my house, like a snail from its shell, but my heart is still there. My advancing age, wear and tear in the joints and too many past injuries induced my wife Jolanda to carry me off to a unit in suburban Healesville, walking/cycling distance from hospital, doctors and shops. That was in November, 2011, and I am still trying to get used to moving off a magic mountain of power that unlocks creativity in its occupants; from lyrebirds and wombats and even rabbits and deer visiting; from the joyful exercise of splitting firewood (when I attend monthly workdays at Moora Moora, that's where I gravitate); from breathtaking views and air so clean you can taste it. My contact with friends of more than half my lifetime has reduced, although I am still part of the community.
For nine years, we have rented the house to a succession of lovely families, with a view to selling it, but each time something went wrong. The man from Tasmania couldn't get a job in Victoria, and was forced to move back. The single mum with the strength few men can match and a bright smile lost funding she'd been promised. And so on.
Let me explain. The house is not on freehold land, but part of the Moora Moora community, approx. 80 Km east of Melbourne. (The air pollution over the city gives us WONDERFUL sunsets.)
This view is from Lakota House on the same mountain. Note the city in the distance.
Moora Moora is an intentional community, which means we choose members with great care. We want people who join to stay on as enthusiastic parts of the community for many years to come. So, we slow interested people down. You can't join in less than 6 months, and most take 18 months to be sure they are committed. Compared to real estate prices anywhere else, it is very cheap to buy into Moora Moora, but we ensure this is not a speculation, but an investment in lifestyle. Naturally, if buying is cheap, you can't sell for a fortune either, motivating people to work out their problems and stay. For many years, the pattern has been for a new family to rent a house, in that way becoming de facto members. Some move on, others stay.
My house became empty in February, 2017. My son convinced me that I needed to renovate it, and give it a few features people expect -- like an attractive render, architraves around doors and windows, and suchlike fripperies that add nothing to functionality. He even bought a water filter for the crystal clear water he was brought up on. He then returned to his travels. I no longer have the flexibility to contort within a kitchen cupboard, so was forced to hire a plumber to install it.
When I started renovating, it took me a day of agony to recover from 4 hours of work. By the end of the year, I could do a 9 hour day, and recover by the next morning, and spent 3 to 5 days per week working.
There has been lots to do: completing tasks I hadn't bothered with 30 years ago, fixing wear and tear (like replacing corroded parts of the hydronic heating system), and repairing damage caused by the lovely but lively children of tenants.
I'll be finished in a few weeks. (This is mid-September, 2017.) The house is now waiting for a new family to love it.
The front pic shows the attached greenhouse (every house in Victoria should have one), and the tiny solar panel array -- what we could afford, and we made do with it. Moora Moora is proud to have no connection to the electricity grid. Compare this pic with the one at the top of the page, showing the new set of solar panels. The house is now also on Glen Morris's microgrid.
If you will read my ideas about house design, you'll see the reason this house is basically a simple rectangle. My wife Jolanda and I had $10,000 for building, and we had no intention of borrowing. The first stage, enough to move into while we worked on the rest, was built for that cost.
To put this in perspective, another Moora Moora builder started at about the same time, in 1980. He finished his house in 3 months: 12 squares, the same size as our first stage. We took nearly two years. He spent $60,000 including hired labour, and also worked about 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. According to the Reserve Bank of Australia inflation calculator, his financial investment is worth $248,000 in current value.
Money is a form of energy. So are time and labour. We substituted a lot of time and work for cash. For example, the footing walls under the mudbricks and load bearing posts are random rubble stone work. Every stone, even the huge ones, were found somewhere, dug up, taken to home-to-be, then carefully laid. Windows were either from demolished buildings, again transported home and lovingly restored, or hand made by me from secondhand hardwood timber. Wall tiles in the bathroom were free: the fruit of a lot of regular scrounging in the throw-out bins of tile merchants (they cannot sell a half-dozen leftovers from a batch, so throw it out. It goes in landfill, unless liberated by someone like me).
The only new components were concrete (hard to get that second hand), the roof trusses and Colorbond roof metal.
In this way, we ended up with something better than a bought one, the cost being the joy of creative building. Sure, it took us a lot longer, but it was far more fun than working at a paid job and paying others to do the work. And the result is far more solid.
Stage 1 was the eventual living rooms, kitchen and bathroom, and one other room. We used bookshelves and wardrobes as room dividers.
Stage 2 was enclosing the whole thing, to what builders call lockup stage, except we had no locks. Then we spent a lot more work on finishing things off. Some of this was years later, for example the slate floor in the lounge and dining rooms.
The first stage of our loungeroom floor was 50 mm concrete on well-compacted sandy loam soil. It survived 8 years without a crack, with a (small) earthquake going through, and the kids being yelled at for splitting kindling on it. Then I got a trailerload of offcuts from slate tile manufacture. Instead of boring, sterile-looking squares, these were all shapes, sizes and thicknesses. Some were so thick I split them to make two from one. Mortar was local sand with cement and lime, proportion being 5:1:1. Each slate had Bondcrete painted on the bottom before being laid. The skill is in keeping the floor level. Practice helps, so start where it doesn't matter.
The black colour is particularly suitable for solar-efficient house design. See page 17 of the Earth Garden Building Book.
Greenhouse at the front; toilet, airlock-bootroom and workshop at the back, were stage 3. (There is NOTHING wrong with a pit toilet for a while. Trees love being planted on top of a well rotted hole-ful of humanure.)
One way of reducing cost and labour, and yet make a doorway more functional, is to use a heavy lined curtain:
I checked it experimentally. Got the fire going, and the lounge room up to 22 degrees. On the other side of a closed door, it was 14. On the other side of the curtain, it was also 14. The curtain works as well as a timber door.
My mother-in-law made this picture with several needle-crafts including applique and embroidery. It was ready long before the house, so I built a recess specially for it. The wall is rammed earth up to there, then mudbrick piers. The ceiling is recycled car case plywood.
Here is the same location after painting and rendering.
Read page 163 of the Earth Garden Building Book to learn how to embed bottles in a mudbrick wall.
This is the west side of the house, and we wanted to minimise summer afternoon sunlight. The bottles and the little leadlight window glow beautifully with the sun behind them. The window is surrounded by mirrors.
Some tiles are set into the earth wall. Plates and clock hang on nails simply hammered into the centre of a mudbrick.
The brick with 'RR' scrawled into it was made by my son Robert when he was about 12.
One way to cut costs of building is to find ways to use space more than once. Here, I have a permanent sleeping platform, with living space under it.
One day, my son lost his balance, and stepped onto a freshly made mudbrick, still in the mould. I carefully preserved it, and found a home for it perhaps 2.5 metres up in the wall. Years later, he came visiting with his son Bodan, then aged 7. When shown the footprint, the boy asked, 'Dad, how could you get your foot up THERE?'
Note the brick pattern. This is 'Flemish bond'. When I was in the planning stage, my friend, energy conservation expert Allan Coldicutt, convinced me that if I had to build with earth walls, I should have an insulated cavity up the middle, because earth has only a fairly low insulating value. So, I made my bricks 150 mm wide.
However, the winter before starting to build, I visited many earth walled houses, and found that, theory notwithstanding, they were warm and snug inside with minimal heating. So, I used my half-width bricks to build a 300 mm thick wall. The most solid pattern for this is the Flemish Bond: two bricks in a running pattern, then a 'bond brick' through the thickness of the wall. The pattern is staggered from row to row so that vertical weaknesses are minimised:
OK, OK, I never said I was a computer artist, but I hope you get the idea.
Freeform architraves grace the house in some places. How else do you get around random rubble stonework?
The next picture below shows my favourite stone wall. Random rubble stone laying is the building activity I enjoy the most, though it's hard work.
The reason for a stone wall is that mudbricks, rammed earth, strawbale and all other materials that would be damaged by rising damp must be kept well up above ground level. Even then, you need a damp-proof layer on top, under the wall proper. Before you even START to think about building with earth (or strawbale), read 'What is a Good Earth Wall' on page 103 of the Earth Garden Building Book. You can borrow it from the library; only buy the book when you're getting serious about building. Then it will simply be part of your toolkit, as a recipe book is in the kitchen.
Many builders make their stone walls with a flat face, with tiny, even mortar joints. This is fine, if you want to spend endless time. I actually prefer rough looks like this.
The wall is a MINIMUM of 300 mm thick. What I did was to set up an old door so it was vertical, and laid the inside face of the wall against that. I had a stringline 300 mm out from the door, and every stone had to reach the string or poke out beyond it.
Later, I constructed a low timber wall inside, with insulation between it and the stone.
Mortar was my local sandy soil, with cement and lime in the proportion of 6:1:1. This is 'brickie's mortar', and is practically waterproof. But I still put a damp-proof layer on top.
When this section of wall was half-completed, I got sucked into a soccer game with the kids. I slipped and tore a cartilage in my knee. After this, I didn't trust my body to attempt heavy lifts for a while, but, cautiously, went back to building as soon as I could. Well, maybe a little sooner.
See the long stone with the brown face, in the top right corner? I estimate that it weighed 200 Kg (440 lbs). After I got that one in place, I started trusting my body again. And no, I didn't pick it up, but used an inclined plane to work it into position. I got the heavy end onto the mortar -- then my supporting construction collapsed. So, there I was, holding the stone, with all the weight on my 'crook' leg... As you can see, I got the #&*)*&$^% in, nice and gently. Ever since then, even after 37 years, I get a jolt of pleasure when I look at that stone. For awhile, I couldn't bring myself to build on it, but sat on top to have my lunch.
Jolanda was the main leadlight artist, though we both learned how to do it. The lovely sun pattern is the largest leadlight you can make without steel reinforcement: 900 mm (3 ft) square. It graces the boot room at the back of our house.
I taught a mudbrick building course through Holmesglen College of TAFE between 1984 and 1999. When it stopped, there were piles of mudbricks that were going to be bulldozed, so I brought a couple of trailerloads home. They were raw material for a chookshed, and what the pic below shows: the western wall of the greenhouse. To save space, and because this is a low, short wall, I used mudbricks on end. The pressed cement bricks also have coloured glass in them.
See? You can build simple, and still make it beautiful.
This wall, next to the entrance to the greenhouse, is the part of the house most exposed to the weather. After 19 years, the bottom bricks were eroding away, so I've rebuilt. The new version should last a few hundred years:
Unfortunately, one of the bricks with coloured glass fell and didn't recover from the experience, so there are only three of them, not four.
This construction is a more recent addition. What I have is a metal water tank that had sprung a few leaks. The curved roof was necessary to keep rain from wetting the wood, and works well. I simply screwed three thin battens of wood to the tank, then forced a scrap sheet of roof metal to the curve.
My friend Michelle Redman is a sculptor. When she saw it, she said it was a work of art. So, see, I am a sculptor too.
We could afford the much larger solar system thanks to a government subsidy for remote area power systems. Our friend and neighbour Glen Morris installed it.
The tiles with the picture on them were a gift to Jolanda from the co-operative, in thanks for many years of voluntary service beyond the call of duty.
Well, if it is, it's a monocycle. There is only this one wheel.
Citrus are clever like that. There is a 30 year old orchard, but for some reason those trees have bare branches in winter.
A few years ago, Glen Morris installed this wonderful system. The gel batteries are in the green box.
A good place for entertaining a few friends on hot summer days.
No, Bilbo is not my next door neighbour. This is the entrance to the fire shelter we share with the neighbour. I had fun doing the stonework.
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