Friday, April 26, 2013

Cluster Housing Saves Resources, Money, and Reduces Impacts on the Land

Two living spaces share one wall to conserve resources and energy. 

I was flattered to have been identified recently in the Chronicle (20-04-13) as an “exponent.” I was only left to wonder, am I ‘squared’ or ‘cubed’? My suspicion is the latter, as a Roman numeral 3 – III – sometimes follows my name of official documents. Although it would be rather cool to change it from Lebo III to Lebo3.

The article in question – Plan considers papakainga settlements on Maori land – reported on a Maori Land Court meeting from March 18, and quoted extensively WDC Principal Planner Jonathan Barrett. I remember meeting Jonathan about a year ago, and being impressed by his open-mindedness and willingness to work with groups to rethink some aspects of planning that would serve people and the planet better than a grid-type suburban landscape.

I had been invited to the meeting in question at the last minute, and was not completely sure about the agenda or even who would attend. I was also unprepared to be the centre of attention, not that I minded because the topic was one easily adapted to a discussion on eco-design. And once you get me going on that…

To provide some background, I had been invited to take a look at a piece of land at Kaiwhaiki Pa that had a decades-old development plan but some serious seasonal drainage issues. The existing plan indicated a grid-type layout of homes across the property, including the low areas. From what I recall, there was also a decade-old quote for a drainage project that would cost around half a million dollars.

From my perspective, this was a case of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Sure, it could be done, but at what cost? Engineers will tell you, “We can do anything with enough money.”

But a suburban-style development on that piece of land would be unnecessarily expensive, unnecessarily destructive to the environment, and, from my scant knowledge of traditional Maori settlements, culturally inappropriate. The ‘burbs are a Pakeha invention. Maori lived in villages.

From my perspective, the existing plan represented a lose-lose-lose situation. This is the opposite of the way I think and design, so naturally I had some ideas to put on the table based on my philosophy of eco-design, which is holistic, cooperative and adaptive.

From a holistic perspective, the drainage problem could be dealt to in a number of ways. First by looking up the watershed and determining in what ways biology (trees and shrubs) could be used to decrease runoff. Next, a number of ‘gentle’ erosion control methods could be used on the property to slow the flow of water by dissipating its energy. Finally, if part of the land wants to flood seasonally, Let It!

Rough sketch of Kaiwhaiki land. 

By clustering the homes into a village setting on the highest part of the section, hundreds of thousands of dollars could be saved on massive drainage works. At the same time, cluster housing reduces the costs of roading, water and sewage pipes, power lines, and even building materials. When two homes share one wall, each family need only pay for three and a half walls instead of four. At the same time, their heating costs will be reduced because each home would have three external walls instead of four. In other words, the two homes warm each other with an awhi, hug.

Two accommodations at Solscape Eco-Retreat share one wall. 

The design strategy is cooperative at every level. Not only does it involve the pa trust working with WDC, but also it involves humanity working with nature instead of against it. This is the heart of eco-design.

And finally, the design strategy is adaptive, because each group mentioned in the article – Kaiwhaiki, Marangai, and Putiki – will have different wants and needs, and each piece of land will have its unique character that must be honoured. Additionally, such developments in our District could become the new Best Practice for papakainga throughout Aotearoa, and iwi from across the land would visit to learn how they could adapt such an approach for themselves. Now that is exponential!

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Anniversary for Eco-Thrfity Renovation Column in Wanganui Chronicle

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of this column – 52 weeks of design principles, advice, maths (payback period), Neil Diamond tributes, and the tiniest bit of humour. I enjoy writing, and when Ross Pringle asked me to consider this column I saw it as a great distraction from my doctoral thesis, and a chance to contribute something to the health and sustainability of our community.

A lot has happened for me over the last year: I became a dad, a doctor, and got the certificate of compliance for our major eco-renovation. Now I am over-educated, under-employed changer-of-nappies.

To mark this anniversary, I’ve decided to bring back the column that started it all. Mind you, this is not the first ETR column, but a column I wrote for the Conservation Comment – which appears on Mondays in the Chronicle – in December, 2011. The wise, and dearly departed (to the South Island) Mr. Pringle recognized something in this piece, and rang with an offer I could not refuse. The rest, as they say, is history, albeit very recent history.



Twenty-Twenty Hindsight: A Year of Living Lightly on the Planet

We are now over the 12-month mark of renovating an abandoned villa in Castlecliff into a warm, dry energy-efficient home. When we set out on this low budget / high performance retrofit we had no specific numbers in mind for energy savings and waste reduction. We simply wanted to push the envelope and do the best we could. As it turns out, our power bill has averaged $20 per month (this includes the daily line charge) and we have spent a total of $20 in rubbish fees for the entire year. I’ve come to call this our “20-20 hindsight” but there is no reason it could not also be a 20-20 vision for others to work toward by the year 2020. Of course electric rates will increase by then, but that is all the more reason to invest in efficiency now. (At current rates of annual change, electric rates will double in under ten years.)

The first Conservation Comment I wrote in July explained the design principles we employed for our passive solar renovation that have helped us achieve low energy bills. There is nothing new or unusual about those principles: solar gain, thermal mass, insulation and draft proofing. Similarly, there is nothing new or unusual about the design principles for our approach to resource conservation: reduce, reuse and recycle. The 3 R’s have helped us reduce the cost and impact of the renovation project as well as the cost and impact of our day-to-day lives. Here are a few examples.

While we have followed the New Zealand Building Code and used treated pine, Braceline Gib, building paper, and heaps of insulation, there are also areas where we were able to reduce costs and impacts by reusing materials. Prime examples include the bathtub, vanity, washtub and toilet in the bathroom, and the bench, sink, mixer, drawers, and shelves in the kitchen. Perhaps the most visible example is the vintage Shacklock 501 multi-fuel range that I bought my wife two years ago as a wedding present and we worked with Building Control to find a way to install safely. But my personal favorites are the pelmets that I made from old weatherboards that we removed while re-cladding sections of the exterior. And, like any builder would, we saved off-cuts to use as dwangs or for other small jobs.

Regarding our household waste stream, we compost all of the food scraps and even our fish and chips papers. We save paper to burn in our Shacklock or our outdoor pizza oven (made from an old wood burner) or to mulch our gardens and fruit trees. We reuse plastic bread bags and other small non-recyclable plastic containers. Again, there is nothing special about any of this, other than the fact that we take it seriously and put out one bag of rubbish for every two months. Perhaps the most unusual thing we do at all is emphasize the costs savings rather than simply the environmental benefits. At the end of the day, eco-thrifty living makes dollars and sense.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Free Sunlight, Permaculture Thinking and Abundance

Permaculture is a long word for common sense, and the ethical treatment of people and the planet. It’s a little disappointing that the word itself may put some people off – because it is unfamiliar to them – but any unique worldview requires an individualized name. The term was coined in the 1970s by a pair of Australians as a contraction between permanent and agriculture, indicating their advocacy for a shift toward low-input perennial crops and away from energy and chemical intensive annual crops.

In this way, permaculture is similar to eco-thrifty renovation in that is seeks low input/high performance design strategies and techniques. In both cases, the sun is the most important element of the system: sun grows food; sun can power a home. First, the home.

Now that we are tipping into winter, and the sun is falling on the northern horizon, the passive solar redesign of our villa is coming back from its ‘summer holidays.’ In other words, our home has been redesigned to let the sun in during the winter months and exclude it during the summer months. By considering the seasonal pattern of the sun, we are able to harness free heating when we most need it: May, June, July and August.

I have written in this column about the key components of passive solar design – solar gain, thermal mass, and insulation – and I’ll revisit them in the months to come. But how, you may ask, does passive solar design work? Although we have a wood burner in our home, we only used it about 2 days per week last winter. The rest of the time our villa was heated for free by sunlight.

Sunlight also grows much of our food for free. That’s hardly news, but on a small section, we’re able to grow a large amount of food by maximizing sunlight exposure by utilizing vertical surfaces. For example, we let pumpkins climb up our fences, which they naturally do. Why fight it?

By growing five or six vines out of one mature compost pile, and letting them run, we are able to enjoy huge yields with hardly any work. Watering and weeding is virtually eliminated growing pumpkins this way. Low input/high productivity.

We also use the sun to cure our pumpkins before storage. This simply entails letting them sunbath for three weeks somewhere their bums can remain dry. We use the north-facing steps of our deck.

Once cured, the thick-skinned pumpkins are transferred to a cool, unused bedroom on the south side of our home. There they can remain ‘fresh’ for 12 months or more with no processing or refrigeration. It’s just natural cool storage.

In late February this year, we ate the last of our last-years’ pumpkins after the first of this-year’s pumpkins were ready to harvest. That means we have 12 months of homegrown, healthy, inexpensive, organic pumpkins at our beck and call. Oh, the recipes.

Interested in learning more about permaculture and permaculture ways of thinking? See the side bar for upcoming workshops.


ECO School Workshops - Autumn, 2013

20th April, 9-5 Thinking Like a Swale: Advanced Permaculture Workshop
27th-28th April. Suburban Permaculture Weekend
5th May, 3-5. International Permaculture Day. Introduction to Permaculture
11th May. Home Energy Savings DIY Workshop

More details:

Registration essential:; 06 344 5013; 022 635 0868

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Permaculture Approach to Science Education

Here is an article I wrote for permaculture magazine. See link below.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Reducing Our Ecological Footprint by Reusing

Over the last three weeks I’ve shared a handful of stories from newspapers both international and local. This week I’ll just start the column by referring to an article that appeared in the Herald in mid-March: Kiwis take more than fair share (Jamie Morton, 15-03-13).

This headline may come as a bit of a shock to those who consider New Zealand to be a fair, just, egalitarian nation. (But then again, we do rank among the top countries in income inequality.) This headline refers to a concept called Ecological Footprinting, which measures the overall environmental impact of an individual, a family, a city, or, in this case, a nation. In other words, as the article states: “If the entire world lived like a New Zealander we’d need more than two planets to sustain us.”

The article reports on two papers released by the Royal Society of New Zealand that looked at the following areas: food production, water quality, biodiversity, fisheries, transportation, and climate change. The combined direct and indirect impacts of all of these add up to the Ecological Footprint, which can be reported in “fair earth shares.” A fair earth share is calculated by taking the world’s total arable land, and dividing it by the human population. The current figure is 1.7 hectares per person, while estimates for New Zealand citizens fall between 5 and 8 hectares. 

But even for those of us who have traveled to Africa, India, or parts of Asia, and seen people existing on a fraction of an earth share (1.7 hectares), the concept can remain abstract. I’ll try to simplify it by using a reference that may be more familiar, the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It should be fairly easy for anyone to recognize that ‘doing’ the 3 Rs would shrink his or her ecological footprint.

Recycling, at this point in time, should be a no-brainer for everyone in New Zealand as it saves money, conserves resources, and helps the environment. This is the type of win-win-win situation preferred in eco-thrifty thinking. Yet I am shocked at how little recycling takes place in many of our public places and sporting venues around Whanganui. After the outstanding, world-class waste minimization effort at the New Zealand Masters Games in February, I was surprised to find out that the organisers of other large, public events in our city have chosen not to make efforts at waste reduction.

Reducing and reusing, for me, go hand-in-hand. Put another way, by reusing, we reduce. For example, nearly everything in our entire ‘new’ kitchen is second-hand, saving the mining and transportation of new resources, the manufacture and transportation of new products, and the disposal of old products.

 New, second-hand kitchen

Another example is the second-hand flue pipes I bought for our second-hand Shacklock 501. Reusing them saved me about 75% of the cost of buying new flues, saved the large carbon footprint of steel production, and supported a locally-owned and operated business, The Renovator’s Centre.

New, second-hand flue 

One final example, although I could describe dozens, is our hanging laundry cabinet that was once a floor cabinet, and came to us via Hayward’s Auctions. Although Nicky, the cashier at Hayward’s, was rightly horrified when we told her we planned to paint the rimu cupboard, it turned out alright.


Some tricks that I used when converting the floor unit to a hanging unit were: 1) inverting it so the original top is now the bottom, revealing the nice side, not the grotty side; 2) taking off the hinges and taping the glass when painting helps to make second-hand items look first rate.


Reducing, reusing and recycling help keep dollars in our community, extend resource reserves for our children and grandchildren, and reduce our impact on the environment. The Win-Win-Wins keep piling up, a lot like the All Blacks. 

Peace, Estwing

Monday, April 1, 2013

Project HEAT Update

Project HEAT: Home Energy Awareness Training

A small consortium of community groups and local businesses have partnered on an innovative programme with the aims of helping Whanganui residents make their homes warmer, dryer, and healthier while saving power and money. This Win-Win-Win situation for people, the local economy, and the planet is the hallmark of the Eco-Thrifty Renovation, the Castlecliff project that inspired Project HEAT.

During the month of March, seven community presentations were held throughout Whanganui. The presentations highlighted seven of the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of home energy savings: compact fluorescent light bulbs, window and door seal, draught excluders, window blankets, hot water cylinder wraps, draught blockers, and the humble but effective ‘straw box.’ Each of these requires a very low upfront investment, which then pays for itself in energy savings in a matter of months or years: representing literally 10% to 200% return on investment!

These community presentations were the first of three stages planned for Project HEAT. The second stage involves a limited number of home energy audits to be performed within the city limits. The audits roughly follow the format used in the Eco Design Advisor programme that is used by Councils throughout New Zealand, the closest to us being Palmerston North. Any household is eligible for a free audit, but priority will be given to those where all decision-makers will be present at the audit, along with at least one adult (friend or whanau) that does not live in the home. This way we can extend the limited amount of funding to reach as many people as possible. To register your interest, either email Nelson,, or ring Richard, 927 6635.

The third stage of Project HEAT is a DIY workshop being organized by Community Education Service for the 11th of May. During this workshop, participants will have the opportunity to make their own custom fit window blankets and draught blockers. The workshop may be particularly helpful for those people who do not have their own tools for making these eco-thrifty energy-savers. Contact CES to register: 345 4717.

The success of Project HEAT for the Whanganui community could not have been realized without the critical partnerships we have established. This is truly a project of the community and for the community. Partnering with The ECO School, the current list of local businesses and community groups includes: Tree Life New Zealand, Ltd., Wanganui Chronicle, Mediaworks, Bunnings Hardware, Sustainable Engineering, Ltd., Richard Collins - Freelance Software Development, Community Education Service, Sustainable Whanganui Trust, and the Whanganui Regional Primary Health Organisation. As well the following organizations donated the use of their venues for the community presentations: Josephite Retreat Centre, YMCA Central, Gonville Café Library, Progress Castlecliff (Duncan Pavilion), Wanganui Community Arts Centre, St. Barnabas Church, and All Saints Church. Thank you!