Category Archives: Natural Building

Eltham Mudbrick House Tour

Mudbrick Houses of Eltham

Last weekend we had a surprise insight into the mud brick world of Melbourne. The district of Eltham (that’s El- tham, not Elt-ham) was hosting a “Practically Green” environmental festival, but we got much more than we bargained for when we ended up on an organised tour of local mudbrick houses.

Now I know nothing about mudbrick, as it’s a technique not really used in the UK, or in Europe for that matter. I’ve come across lots of cob and rammed earth, of course, but this is a bit different, since the mud/straw mixture is actually shaped into bricks before its used. Maybe it needs a warmer climate to dry the bricks?

The Tour started at Montsalvat, an artist community founded by Justus Jorgenson,  who designed and built the Great Hall using pis-de-terre (rammed earth) and mudbrick techniques.  Montsalvat was also home to Alistair Knox , who inspired several of the houses on the tour. In fact, one of the houses was his own which was built in the early 1960’s and continued to be his home until his death in 1986.

Even though the technique itself was unfamiliar to me, what did seem to resonate was the the beautiful gardens and the way the outside was invited in by way of large window openings. I also the appreciated the way the houses sit snugly in the landscape – often dug into the side of a hill. Huge round timbers held up decorated gables and coloured glass in the roof let in sunlight to warm and brighten the rooms. Knox was obviously pioneering an environmental design which we can see in many natural homes today, like those built by Tony Wrench or Simon Dale in Wales.

A Veteran of over 1000 house builds, Knox was not an architect by trade, in fact, his first job was in a bank. On his release from the navy in 1945, he began a course in building construction and at the same time, started work on two houses. At that time, materials were in short supply, but Knox was interested in trying out new techniques and had a particular theory about “bringing the building and the natural environment together into one indivisible whole”. Ah yes, that makes sense now. Knox even got the banks to finance one of his builds, by quoting an academic study submitted to the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station which vouched for the safety of mudbrick walls.

At Alistair’s house, we bumped into a student of Knox, Bohdan Kuzyk, who designed another of the houses, home of artist Jenni Mitchell. Jenni’s home sits in a mature orchard garden. The scent of citrus blossom alone makes it feel tropical. The house is home not only her and her partner, but also her luminous paintings. These homes definitely invite one to live with soul inside them.

The Eltham Mudbrick Tour has been going since 1964 and so far, it has only been cancelled once, following the fatal Black Saturday bush fires of 2009 in Kinglake, Victoria. At present, it is organised by the Nillumbick Music Support group, and promoted by the Nullumbick Mudbrick Association, who promote mudbrick building, particularly in the Eltham area.

Because we got caught up in the Tour, we missed the demonstration of mudbrick making which was happening at the “Practically Green” environmental festival. I’ll try to find someone to show me and make a little film about it soon for the Living in the Future series.

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Moora Moora Intentional Community

I’ve just come back from a weekend at Moora Moora, an intentional community about an hour and a half out of Melbourne. It takes about an hour to even get out of Melbourne, since the suburbs spread for miles and miles. The train passes out through Camberwell, Chatham, Canterbury and Croyden – all brought from the old country to help the settlers feel at home. They look nothing like the originals.

Eventually, sprawling suburbs turn into sprawling homesteads, with large farmhouses stuck in vast pastures. And trees appear.

My train connects with a bus and after the bus, someone waits to take me the last 20 minutes to the mountain. We wind up Mount Toolebewong through tall gums and emerge at the top into an open green.

The Lodge is a communal building, converted into lounge, kitchen and visitor dorms. This building was used by Melburnians who came to holiday here in the early part of the century, but the rest – about 30 hand built,  have appeared since. The community is about 40 people, plus children, living in small clusters of homes created mostly from mud brick, poured earth or straw. They are off the grid, and fought to stay so when the power company threw lines over the mountain in the 1970’s and insisted that they connect. They refused, making their point by standing in front of the bulldozers. “It was a defining moment in terms of our commitment not to use the grid and to make sure we got as much of our own power using the sun and wind as we could”, says Sandra Cock.

Peter Cock is one of the founders and somewhat of an expert in intentional communities. He wrote a book in the 1970’s as part of his PhD studies which analysed community in Australia and used his experience to establish Moora Moora. He explains that the cluster design protects the community against breakdown, since in theory, if one cluster has a conflict, the whole community does not need to “deal with it”. It’s a bit like saying that if you break a leg, the body won’t die, but I do get the feeling that Moora Moora, nearly 40 years old, is limping just a little. It may be that some of the newcomers crave the laid back lifestyle without wanting to put in the hard work which maintains a community.

This weekend, there is a course here on how to develop a fledgling ecovillage. The facilitator, Shane Schmidt, learned at Findhorn in Scotland and the group of 20-odd participants are all at some stage of setting up a community. They are here to learn about the “four core pillars” of sustainable design: social, worldview, ecological and economic. I am here, in particular, to research aspects of conflict resolution for my new documentary. I take part in a profound process called Forum, which was developed in Zegg community in Germany and facilitated here by Gero Van Aderkas. I hope to show you how it works in the film!

On Saturday, the weather is warm and sunny and supports a fun evening of wood fire pizza, dance and a screening of Ecovillage Pioneers. On Sunday, the mist and rain roll in and blanket the mountaintop in a damp chill which makes me glad to head back down the mountain to the city. I had enough of that in Wales 🙂

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Morning in Dharmananda

A Big Trip

I’ve been on a trip. A big trip. Two big trips, actually. The first one took me away from my lovely home at Holtsfield in Wales and right over to the other side of the world, to Melbourne, Australia. I’ve been living here for seven months now and taken many little trips to explore the area – up to the Grampian mountains in the north, down to the Great Ocean Road in the South and over to Tasmania, too. And then came another big trip.

When I came to Australia, I knew I wanted to make some films about intentional communities here. I have been making films on this subject for almost 15 years – the website tells the story of that. I had made contact with some people even before I landed, but it took six months of living here to gather what the story would be.

During those six months, I have been doing my research. I’ve been sitting in the beautiful domes of the State Library of Victoria and reading about land rights in Australia (shocking), about alternative lives here, about planning laws. I’ve made friends at two of the communities nearest to me. One is Commonground, a co-operative about an hour from the city, where their intention is to hold a space not only for individuals to live and work together, but also to host other groups who are working for social change. The other is Moora Moora, about an hour in a different direction. Their community is bigger, with around 100 people living in small clusters of the top of a mountain.

Visiting and staying at these communities gave me insight into the themes which are particular to Australia and I started to feel ready.

Then came the big trip. While talking to a journalist friend who also writes about living the simple life, it seemed to shout that I should be telling a history – a history of intentional community in Australia. So that is what I have set out to do. The big trip took me north of Brisbane, to Crystal Waters, a permaculture village near the funky little town of Maleny. From there I travelled to Nimbin, where I met, amongst others, a man associated with the Aquarius Festival in 1973, which brought not only a huge number of hippies to the broken-down town, but also the first multiple occupancy planning laws. Some of the communities established then still remain and have loads to teach us about how to live with each other and how to maintain such a project over time.

In Bellingen, further south, there are over 25 intentional communities a hotbed of activity which has spilled out into the surrounding area, including the local council, who have established radical waste collection initiatives.

Narara Ecovillage, an hour north of Sydney, is on the site of a horticultural research facility. This land will now be turned into one of Australia’s newest intentional communities.

I have some great stories to tell you and this is only the beginning. This blog will help me make sense of the film I am making and also of life in Australia, 18,000 km from the place I call home. Will you join me?

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