A few days ago John Hermans took me on a tour of his 40-hectare bush block, located on a section of the Nicholson River in Clifton Creek, Victoria.
Nestled among the tall stringy bark trees was one of the most remarkable houses I had ever seen, a place so in keeping with the natural surroundings that it uses clay from the property for walls, logs from the forest for the frame and floorboards, and soil from the original excavation site for the roof, which has sprouted native habitat that attracts hungry wallabies.
And that’s just the beginning. The house also has every environmentally friendly creature comfort you could imagine, including a rainforest for a front garden, a van that runs on vegetable oil and a swimming pool cleaned not by chemicals, but tadpoles.
Wearing a faded green T-shirt from an op-shop, John stood on the stony ground in bare feet and pointed at where it all began – a run-down corrugated iron shed about nine metres long and five metres wide.
Inside the shed, the floor was old carpet covering bare earth. The building frame and beds were made of stringybark poles wrapped together with black twine. The toilet was an open pit located down the hill. The family lived here for more than 10 years, including six years with a child. “That’s a big saving on rent,” said John.
But as the family spent more time building their permanent home, they stopped maintaining the shed and it fell into neglect. “It probably leaked a bit in the end, and it smelled and it got wet, and the rats were running around the floor at night.”
John left the shed and wandered over to another memento from the past – the mud brick press he used to build their permanent home. “It’s made 60,000 bricks in its time,” he said. He built the thing himself using only a photograph as a reference.
Next John showed me the saw mill, which was powered by a Ford Falcon motor he picked up at a scrap yard for 150 bucks. Instead of petrol, he fuelled it with the dregs of discarded car LPG bottles. He scored a bunch of them for free years ago, enough to last a lifetime. “And I’ll never have to buy fuel for it again,” he said.
After that we visited the hydro generator by the river. John crouched on a wooden plank in front of a one-metre-high rock wall, water cascading over the top. He installed the system in 1986, the spinning shaft held in place with joints from an old Subaru. “I’ve just turned it on and it’s generating 240 volts,” he shouted over the rumbling turbine.
Why not just connect to the grid like everyone else? I asked.
“I would have had to go to work to pay for it,” he replied. “Whereas this project was something I could do in my own backyard, something I’m completely in control of for a fraction of the price.”
The hydro generates 1kW of power, and you can read more about the technical details here. Here’s a photo of John standing next to the “power tower”, which houses the pump:
In 2005, John installed another system below a government-constructed reservoir, this time with a Fisher & Paykel washing machine motor. For years the household had all the free electricity it needed, but last year the reservoir was drained, prompting John to buy solar panels.
After clambering back up the river bank, we took a drive in John’s grey Toyota van. Behind the gear box was a big red switch: one side read BIODIESEL, the other VEGGIE OIL. John used to run the car on home-made biodiesel, refining it in a big metal drum, but then he installed a tank system that runs with straight vegetable oil. Local restaurants and fish and chip shops give him the stuff for free, reducing fuel costs to about 30 cents per trip. But he’s still not satisfied. “I’m looking at future options, including turning leaf litter and shit on the ground into methane gas to power the car,” he said. (Later he told me why: “Peak veggie oil is just around the corner.”)
Next John showed me the front of the house, which is absolutely gorgeous:
See that long, shiny panel above the first floor? Underneath that is a home-made solar hot water system, cobbled together from 300 metres of copper tubing soldered to corrugated iron. The house also has insulated double-layer mud brick walls, laid mostly by John’s wife Robyn, and a solar-heated concrete slab. These features help to maintain a comfortable temperature all year round without the use of heaters or air conditioners.
And see that small rock garden in the foreground? The one with the red flowers? Above that garden is a sensor – part of the “wallaby alarm” John installed. When a would-be flower thief bends over for a nibble, a light comes on, a car horn blares and water sprays at the offending marsupial. (Later Robyn confided to me that the alarm isn’t very effective. “The wallabies are used to it,” she said.)
But the tour didn’t end there. Oh no. John had much more to show me – including those pool-cleaning taddies.