Passive Housing & Beyond

hot, cold or passive house - which house is yours?

Less cost, better living

How much was your last heating or cooling bill? Would you like 90% off? And as a bonus, would you like less climate change with that? Passive Housing cuts costs for heating and cooling by 90%. And it also enriches our health with more natural light. Permaculture design steps beyond by actively connecting with nature and community.

Passive Housing Comfortable: Indoors and Out

If you live in a region with extreme cold, then you know the value of insulation. As expected, the cool European alps are where passive architecture was first developed. However, in the wake of the recent climate shock, there’s a fresh demand for energy-efficient buildings.

For the first time, Paris suffered 37c in the night after a day of 46c. But, the solution is not as simple as reaching for the air conditioner. Every air conditioner pumps out the heat. As a consequence, the city gets hotter. Actually, the best solution requires less effort and a lot less energy. Finally, we have a standard for making comfortable homes: Passive Architecture.

Transparent Technologies

There are thousands of passive houses around the world. And every passive house looks different. As a result, you wouldn’t recognise one if you passed by. Except that, the occupants may look nice and cozy.

The success of the Passive House movement lies in the simplicity of the technology, expert data, shared knowledge, and supportive associations.

When Passive Homes was first designed the results were surprising. In fact, a passive house requires very little additional energy for heating because our body heat, lights, and appliances are sufficient. Instead of investing in furnaces or air conditioners, passive housing invests in better construction and design techniques.

Nature knows how to make Passive Housing - says the bear
Passive houses are insulated, have no thermal bridges and good ventilation systems

Principles of Passive Housing

There are a few basic principles:

Firstly, the Passive house has a good orientation. The main windows greet the morning sun. Then when the hot midday summer sun comes, the eaves provide cover. Much later on, in winter, the low sunlight streams under these carefully positioned eaves.

Insulation, thermal bridge, leg warmers are valuable parts of passive housing
Insulation and blocking of thermal bridges are vital features of passive housing

Secondly, these homes have superior insulation. There are no air leaks.

Thirdly, the design blocks thermal-bridges. Thermal bridges are areas that accidentally transmit heat. Like the legs of a sheep that protrude from the fluffy body. Or the large thin ears of an elephant. Of course, big floppy ears transmit heat well. so, to protect an elephant from the cold, we would insulate the big thermal bridges – starting at the ears.

Where are the thermal bridges in a building? Long rafters are good examples of thermal bridges in a building. A rafter that runs from indoors to the outdoors will transmit heat. Likewise, heat is lost at the corners of the building. Especially where the insulation is thin. By redesigning the way the walls connect, passive houses minimise thermal bridges. Luckily, the plan to reduce thermal bridging doesn’t always incur an additional cost.

curtains cover thermal bridges. Thermal bridges: lintel, doorstep, window frames
Quick retrofit curtains cover thermal bridges: lintel, doorstep, window frames

Lastly, Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRV) are an important part of passive building design. Unlike opening a window to get fresh air, HRV units bring in fresh air without losing heat. Natural HRV units are being developed and the information shared openly. Ventilation systems occur in nature in termite mounds and trapdoor spider chimneys.

termites are naturals at insulation and ventilation
Termites build insulated termite mounds with good ventilation systems

Let’s use Recycled Materials

Good insulation and high durability do not need superior materials. Although specialist materials are readily available, so are simple technologies to reuse recycled materials. Passive homes do not need expensive materials. But they do require awareness. home-made earthships are built with old tyres. And in Guatemala, children build schools with recycled drinking bottles. Windows can be made from bottles filled with water. Similarly, The liter of light reuses old drink bottles. This project has revolutionized homes in the favelas of Brazil.

The Look and Feel

The historic Maximilianeum houses the German Bavarian Parliament. It is a powerful example of large-scale passive architecture. This project demonstrates creativity and adaptability. Recent improvements in insulated glass have sparked a range of creative passive designs. Whilst these buildings embrace natural light, the ultimate goal of passive housing is to use less energy overall. 
How we survived the mini-ice age without air conditioners
Living through the mini-ice age of 17th Europe required quick adaption, insulation with natural materials and heavy clothing. Detail of Thomas Wyke’s painting of a Thames Frost Fair in the winter of 1683/84.

Fossil fuels and Nuclear power are recent energy sources. For generations, people across the globe lived and worked without energy-devouring devices. Even during the mini-ice age of the 17th century, survival depended only on fuel from the forests. The houses were smaller with heavy curtains, and even heavier clothing.

Traditional igloo drawn by MILES KELLY - well insulated and minimal thermal bridges due to the curved shape
Traditional igloo drawn by MILES KELLY – The igloo is well insulated and has minimal thermal bridges due to the curved shape

Growing affluence in developing countries is stimulating higher energy use. As a result, this increased energy use is accelerating climate change. Fortunately, India and China are leading this low-impact technology.

Green passive buildings in China
Pas­si­ve Hou­se pro­jects in Bao­ding

Government Initiatives

Soon China will host the upcoming Passive House Conference. In Gaobeidian, near Bejing, the largest energy efficient settlement in the world will be opened. Likewise, throughout Canada, local, regional and nationwide governments are promoting energy-efficient architecture. Best of all, commercial Passive House buildings provide better work conditions and lower manufacturing costs.

Retrofit Hurdles

Creating a more energy-efficient home requires investment and commitment. Investing upfront to save money later is impossible for most people. Many families are struggling to pay current energy bills. The bills rise as the heat rises. But job security is falling. Therefore, it is harder to commit to a home long enough to improve comfort levels.

The second hurdle for retrofitting a home for low energy use is the issue of connection to society. Commitment helps us overcome the cost and time involved in a retrofit. Because commitment grows from a sense of community, good design builds a connection with others. Otherwise, the passive house entombs us in quiet isolation.

Insulation not Isolation

Today, passive house designs are developing better connections with the outside world. Although passive buildings shelter us from the elements, our connection with nature and others is valuable. Fortunately, Biophilic design principles can enable the residents can reconnect with nature. Beyond this, Permaculture principles actively connect the residents with the landscape, surrounding environment and community.

The passive house insulates us from the weather, the biophilic house reconnects us with nature. Ultimately, the Permaculture house is actively engaged in the landscape

This article was co-authored with Gary Ashton REALTOR® Nashville, TN, USA

our graduates are leaders
One of our graduates, Philip Dolan has a site where you can learn more about Energy Efficient homes and Biophilic design:

Permaculture in the City

Some people may think they need land to do Permaculture. After-all, Permaculture aims for a culture that is truly permanent. Having land is crucial for sustainable food production with healthy soils near homes of happy people. Right? Umm… not exactly. Having access to land is helpful, but having supportive people is more critical.

City – Cultural Heartland

Two simple goals can achieve sustainable culture: ‘kindness to others’ and ‘mindfulness of impact’.  Kindness has the capacity to eliminate the widespread destruction brought about by war and greed. ‘Mindfulness’ of our impact would immediately temper destruction of the land by agriculture and industry. 

City-living encourages kindness. A peaceful city is more prosperous and less wasteful. Kindness strengthens community. The challenge, however, is how to be mindful of environment impact from a distance. The city is a long way from conventional agricultural lands. So, to achieve a sustainable culture in the city, the city would want to full responsibility for the waste, grow more food in the cities and actively support good agricultural practices.

Kindness reduces anxiety, violence, greed, war,
security, insurance, policing and much more.

One consumer in a big city may not feel the power of their choices. But they can be confident in the knowledge that the ultimate power for change is initiated by consumers then supported by their legislators. (Who are also often based in the city). What happens in the city affects the whole region, state, country, other countries and environment.

Conscious consumption and proactive production are powerful choices for positive change

Far from the presumption that permaculture belongs out of town, the success of a culture is actually in its people. Because people make the choices.  And people drive change.  As a result, the greatest volume of passion and capacity for change is in the cities.

You have the power
You have the power to build a better future

Imagineering The ‘Truly Sustainable City’

What would a ‘Truly Sustainable City’ look like? Firstly, by applying permaculture ethics in a city design would mean that city becomes totally responsible for its waste – a city that has zero-waste.

Secondly, by utilising mostly natural energies instead of imported fossil fuels then it would optimise the capture of solar energy as well as energy from the waste including sewage.

Thirdly, to build efficiency within the sustainable city, each component (ie. building, docklands, open spaces, road and bicycle highways) would be positioned in efficient relationship to others and the community.

What would your sustainable city look like? Be active in the redesign of your city.

What would your truly sustainable city look like? Be part of the your cities design

Finally, every Sustainable City would look different because it would be designed by the members and adapted by the generations that follow. In fact, the design would not be something that is enshrined on a wall like an old town plan, but would simply be a strong policy for communication and direction.

A Few Unsavoury Details

The Sustainable City would need to exclude the use of components it cannot reuse easily such as plastics and toxic chemicals. That is a huge hurdle in context of current consumption habits. No city today is waste-free. In fact, few countries, let alone cities, can cope with all of it’s waste. Consequently a handful of vulnerable countries a bearing the burden of western world waste.

Ban toxic imports

Until The Future Comes

Until the Sustainable City evolves, there are still things each individual does that has impact. The choices we make affect production and the production we make also lessens impact. Basically, each person can cut waste and build skills. 

Fight For Your City

Permaculture isn’t about returning to rural lands to eke out a humble farming existence.  Permaculture farming has fostered a renaissance in farming now known as regenerative farming.  Regenerative farming requires good design planning,  and more time and resources to invest in the land. because we have come to time where most modern farms are nutrient deficient. More resources have been taken out than put in. For future growth, most farms today need a period of healing

Of course, Urban permaculture will never be as cheap as modern commercial farming because modern farming has been using cheap energy source of fossil fuels. However, food today in western countries is so cheap that most of it is wasted.

Sharing reduces waste

Surprising advantages to city-grown food

City-grown food provides two major benefits:
1. The relationship between people and their food is strengthened by immediacy and transparency
2. there is far less cost in transporting the food to the consumer

Not About ‘What’ –  It’s ‘How’

Some people may focus on what they need to do permaculture either when aiming grow food or build community resilience. The list of resources is not as essential as the efficient links between them.

It is not about what you have –  it is about how you link them.

Have meaningful connections

In the physical example of the importance of placement there is a dwelling, van, pond, palm and fruit tree. Permaculture design increases efficiency by connecting the components by need and function. In this design, the palm tree offers afternoon shade to the van, morning shade to house and summer shade to the pond. Fallen fruit is accessible by chickens. The pond and chickens are clear from risk from the van.

social permaculture elements
Here are some possible components of a social permaculture design. The components are created by the members. The components work to reduce waste, increase skills, enable sharing and build harmony.

Wilderness Benefits

Growing food in the cities reduces pressure on forests for farmland and it also increases green spaces. Becoming more productive helps mental and physical health. Each person has the chance to reconnect with nature. Food production near to consumers minimises transportation costs. When food is growing nearby, consumers will scrutinise the chemicals used on our food plants. They are also more supportive of healthy pest management systems. Organic food is increasing in value on many levels. The consumer knows what is best for their health and the environment. Best of all is the flavoursome, nutrient-rich foods.

King parrot eating pears
King Parrot loving the city food and habitat

Cool Side-Effects

There are side-benefits from growing more food in the cities. A greener city is cooler in summer and less depressing in winter.

What One Child Can Do

A child does it. The adult dares not. A child has open eyes, is curious and sensitive to nature. A child learns to lie at a young age in order to fit into their society. Today’s child sees the truth about pollution and global warming. They see and feel suffering and change within their own environment. Climate change impact is visible to everyone who cares to look.

Baby say “No”

Write to Santa and tell him you don’t want anything made with plastic. Write to him today because it may take a long time for Santa read your letter. Especially if every child writes to Santa this year.

$89 billion is spent annually on toys. If every child asks for biodegradable toys, the industry will respond. Say no to plastic toys. There are plenty of options already on the market. Books, jigsaw puzzles, board-games, paper craft are a quick alternative.

Tell your family you are happy to get a second-hand toy. If you are concerned about germs or bugs, simply pop the soft toy in the freezer for a few days or take it in the shower for a wash and dry it in the sun. Saving old toys can be a creative hobby. And sometimes that toy becomes a valuable antique.

Baby is Nurtured

Every parent in the world loves their child. Many parents will give the only remaining food in the kitchen to their children first. But they often give food that the baby screams for and not what is good for baby or for the planet. Billions of babies are fed bottled milk instead of healthy breast-feeding The economic pressures against breast feeding are concerning the World Health Organisations. Good health helps the planet. So, if you are child. Say “No thanks” to sweets and additives and become friends with healthy foods.

Baby is Adored

Why is the fashion industry is driven mostly by young people? Because young people need new clothes as they grow. In recent decades these young people have also become a symbol of vitality and beauty. Everyone wants to look beautiful. That’s why the beauty industry is worth billions. Yet in the 70s it was cool to look natural. To have natural hair colour, natural fibres and no make-up. Make natural the new best thing.

Deadly Sequins

Beautiful But Deadly – Most Clothes Clog Oceans

Most children’s clothes are made with artificial fibres. Nylon,  polyester,  acrylic,  polyolefin and spandex are in most clothes sold today. If you can’t see what the fibre is, don’t choose that garment. Why? Plastic fibres shed microfibres every time they are washed. These clothes were also toxic to the workers and the factory environment when they were first made. Search for natural fibres like organic cotton, linen, wool, and silk. Best of all, embrace hand-me-down clothes. Get pre-loved clothes. They are comfy and cost a lot less on the earth.

Protest with Cheeky Smile

You can use a lot less energy if you walk to school. Some communities have walking buses – groups of children with a caring adult. Going to sleep early and waking up with the sun to use natural light for play and study is an easy way to save energy.

Get Grubby

Get Close To Nature

Each time you go outside, you are getting to know nature and how she works. The closer our mind gets to know nature, then the smarter we get in working with natural energies and valuing the great diversity of the natural world. Getting outdoors is healthy for bodies and minds. Being outdoors is our best way to observe and react to change. But rather than just monitoring our own extinction, we invent ways to reduce our impact. Being outdoors in the fresh air builds our resistance to germs, is fun education and uses a lot less energy than being indoors. Get outside and get grubby.

Grow Food

Growing food is super easy. Any child can do it. Use food-waste to make compost, provide seeds and tubers. You don’t need to spend a cent. Getting permission is harder than asking for forgiveness. Just start beside an abandoned ditch and see if anyone notices. Grow food, build a clean environment and share it.

Growing food is easy. Getting permission is tough. Grow it, share it then ask for forgiveness.

3 Bold Reasons To Eat Native

Dianella berries – tart and crunchy

Fit Native Foods

When we started growing native food plants, we thought these young plants would have similar needs to the others. But it turned out they were more hardy. And best of all, they grew in the shade of the fast growing fruit trees like Mulberry, Jack-fruit, Pear, Mango [and our 100 or so other trees.]

Bush Lolly – sweet and juicy

Old-World Exploration Within Modern World

Meet the world of underutilised native foods. These foods are growing in neglected areas out of reach of the suburban lawn-mower. Hidden from the chemical sprays of council workers, and laying low in ditches beside massive fields of cereal crops.

Native foods are resilient to their hometown soil and micro-climate. Some have fallen extinct, some have a precarious existence, but many native foods have enjoyed a renaissance. Many have been developed and are now commercially propagated and enhanced by programs of natural selection.

Lilly Pilly – crunchy, tart and juicy

Best Reasons to Put Native on Your Plate

1. Culinary Joy

New foods can bring colour into our food pallet. Trying a new food can take us on a culinary adventure. Sadly, many of us walk past a native food without ever tasting it. Chefs all around the world are searching for ingredients that are out of the ordinary.
Worldwide there are more than 50 000 edible plants. Remarkably, three of these plants [rice, maize and wheat] provide 60 percent of the world’s food energy intake. Fresh native foods are rarely on our dinner plate.

Australian Native Raspberries – sweet and plump

2. Super Health Benefits of Eating Native

A lot of native foods are superfoods. They are vibrant in colour and rich in nutrients. Sadly these loud qualities can turn some cooks away. Many chefs are finding ways to capture the vibrancy and strong flavours. Western foods, such as Peas, enjoyed genetic selection and culinary attention for centuries. Native foods need chef-pioneers explore ways to harness the super nutrition and complement the bold flavours.

Native and non-native tea herbs growing happily together at Silk Farm

3. Growing Local Suits Us Locals

The greatest benefit of eating Native food is the boost to the environment. By growing indigenous foods, a farmer won’t need to alter the terrain as much. There is a species for wetland, another for zones that are high and dry. Nor will the farmer need to add chemicals or soil enhancers. The plants that are native don’t need specialist support. They know what they are doing and just need appreciation and room to grow.

The native birds will appreciate the habitat. Sure, they will eat some of the crop (as they already eat the non-native crops), but they will also return fertiliser, pick off insects pests and work to regenerate the land. All these factors build a richer food future.

cockatoo dropping a macadamia nut
cockatoo drops nut

Our Top Bush Tuckers

  1. Finger Lime – Many of our friends hunger for this fruit. It performs well on the edge of a forest where it can get a little direct sunlight to form fruits.
  2. Macadamia – the visiting children have learnt when they are ready to eat. They have a devoted smashing station made with two rocks. They look for slight blemishes on the shells. The pattern is mottled like a leopard skin. This develops when the fruit has fallen away and the nut has matured.
  3. Native Raspberry – we select to grow the less seedy fruits. They deliciously tart and fruit nearly all year around but most importantly they are fruit over winter.
  4. Dianella – Wollongong Uni Innovation Campus has the best we have ever tasted. And hardly anyone knows to eat them. These look stunning and taste great.
  5. Walking-Stick Palm – small but delightful and easy to pick.
  6. Anniseed Myrtle – Fantastic leaves for herb tea.
  7. Sandpaper Fig (the skin is tough like a kiwifruit and the flesh is sweet). This grows to be a huge tree – so make sure it is not going to block the sun coming to your home or over your neighbour. It will help to hold the bank of a local creek or an area too steep for other uses.
  8. Native Rosella – the flowers are like a soft lettuce. This is a short-lived delicate shrub. Shrubs and understorey plants that are edible are hard to find in a permaculture system – so this is a must in our food jungle.
  9. Davidson Plum – strong bitter flavour, spectacular plant, erect and ferny with fine pastel pink flowers. It is also an understorey plant until it reaches maturity.  The fruits fall when they are ready so keep a layer of soft mulch underneath to pillow their fall.
  10. Sea grape – small fleshy fruits. Commonly grown in large areas like a steep bank.
  11. Native Orange – the skin is tart but the flesh is perfumed and sweet. There is variation in the fruits on the single tree. This plant deserves to be cultivated and developed.
  12. Lilly Pilly – The best Lilly Pilly my family has tasted are ones that were growing in the carpark of MacArthur Square Shopping Centre. It grows happily here too. Search for varieties with big purple fruits
  13. Lemon Myrtle – good for herb tea and as a perfume. We were very happy for years with this Myrtle until we discover the Anniseed Myrtle. (Just personal taste).
  14. Blueberry Ash – These fruits look pretty but a bit skinny in comparison with Dianella.  A bonus is it fruits late in summer when other plants are having a rest.
  15. Mountain Pepper – delightfully peppery leaves, loves growing here in part shade.
  16. Native citrus
  17. Pigface for flowers and edible stems
  18. Native Leeks
  19. Kangaroo Grass
  20. Nardoo
  21. Native Clumping Bamboo – we have successfully overwintered our first native bamboos from far north queensland and hope to support this crop in the solar traps of our food forest.
European limes, Davidson Plums, little Sandpaper figs and big pink Malay Apples