Self confessed ‘non gardeners’ Mark Fielding and Debbie Colson of Nelson say if they can create a sustainable home and garden, anyone can.
At first glance you might think that Mark and Debbie’s 392sqm property on a steep slope on an urban street is an unlikely, if not downright impossible, spot for supporting a self-sufficient lifestyle. But they’re living proof that size really doesn’t matter - although it might help if you have a flair for innovation, a magpie’s penchant for all things recycled and a certain willingness to get your hands dirty!
Mark and Debbie’s house, built 13 years ago on a tight budget, was never the less designed to be energy efficient using north facing glass to collect free solar energy and coupled with Nelson's own Latitude Wool insulation to maintain indoor comfort. Two energy efficient radiant heaters from European Marble Heating (EMH) provide back up heating within the home. Chemical free framing and recycled timber has been used throughout the build.
The house cladding is a product called Onduline, made from 50 percent recycled paper and cardboard and bonded together with bitumen. It’s a French product that’s been used in New Zealand for over 60 years and looks like corrugated iron, but feels like a thick and gritty cardboard to touch.
Although Mark prefers to use New Zealand made products whenever possible, he says he chose Onduline because it was “organic, cheap, durable, low maintenance and economic to fix. It also looks great, especially when contrasted with stained macrocarpa.”
Because of Mark’s work as an eco-home designer, he holds himself to a high standard and is quick to downplay his own property as an example of an eco-home.
“This house was built years ago from an earlier vision. If I was building again now, I’d love to create a home that was fully self-sustaining and ‘off the grid’. I’m influenced by people like Michael Reynolds who created the ‘earth ships’ in New Mexico, built entirely from so called ‘garbage’ products,” he says.
Nevertheless, the home still boasts many innovative eco features that help Mark and Debbie reduce their impact on the planet, including a Kiwi Bog Composting Toilet with a solar-driven fan (in addition to their greywater flush toilet).
Mark says through his work, he’s done a lot of research into ‘humanure’ (human manure) and composting toilets, and the Kiwi Bog was an easy choice.
“It’s the cheapest on the market, its easy to use and it’s also the simplest system to install. A lot of designs require a lot of structure and installation underneath, which means they’re not portable but this one doesn’t. It also looks good,” he says.
The Kiwi Bog has a unique urine separating tray which diverts off to a 250 litre grey water tank with a tap which is used for garden watering. Solid waste drops into a biodegradable plastic lined bucket below the toilet seat and covered with sawdust after use, then emptied every few weeks. The quiet, low power fan helps ensure an odour free bathroom. The bags need to be stored for about three months to kill potential pathogens before being added to a worm farm or compost. While Mark is a total convert, Debbie admits she’s still coming around to the idea.
“I am getting there with it, it’s just that in the US where I come from, I’d never even seen one of these!” she says. Plus, because Debbie works from home she likes to keep the flush toilet option available for her massage therapy clients.
Mark and Debbie’s garden is a bit of an engineering feat given the 1:3 gradient of the slope. Created from scratch just two years ago, they’re now making the most of every spare inch of space and there are bigger plans ahead.
Mark says up until two years ago, he and Debbie had never considered themselves as gardeners, but they now regret not starting earlier.
“Initially I wanted nothing to do with gardening. We grew 3 foot tall grass extremely well! Then I guess consciousness shifted and we started out with a few lettuces in a recycled styrofoam box on the deck – that got us hooked,” Mark says.
Debbie agrees and says creating the garden has been great for their relationship as well as their eating habits.
“From when the garden has started producing, we’ve had something from it every day. Our goal is to eventually be completely self-sufficient off the garden including storing food for winter
“It’s also been a really bonding thing for us to do together as a couple. Every relationship needs a shared goal!”
The garden benefits from the efficient link between the house and garden, starting with the storage room built under the house and into the bank where the cool temperatures make it perfect for storing winter garden food.
There are good sized organic vegetable gardens with winter protection for maximum production. Five hundred kilos of recycled concrete pavers, on scrap polystyrene insulation, provide thermal mass paths in the greenhouse that help to keep plants from freezing overnight.
Mark’s magpie tendencies and innovative ideas can be seen throughout the garden, from the soil filter constructed from an old wire wove bed base to their compost mixer and the covered bathtub used for initial storage of Kiwi Bog waste.
When asked what advice he’d have for other urban homeowners with small sections who want to become more self-suficient, Mark offers the following advice:
“Get a composting toilet and read ‘The Humanure Handbook’. Get into growing your own veges and consider becoming a vegetarian. In doing just one of these things, you’ll be helping to save the planet.”
Mark and Debbie’s property is one of the homes that will be showcased as part of the Home & Garden Tours on the weekend prior to Ecofest 2010 in Nelson on 21 & 22 August. Ecofest is a joint event between Nelson City Council and Tasman District Council. Since its beginnings in 2001, Ecofest has become established as one of the biggest showcases for eco-innovative products, services and messages in New Zealand, attracting an audience of around 8,000. This year, Ecofest celebrates its 10th birthday. Prior to the Expo are the eco home tours, an urban edible garden tour, a sustainable business tour, and a Top of the South Food Challenge. The Expo on 21 & 22 August then includes birthday gala celebrations, with celebrity guest speakers, over 120 stands, kids’ activities, workshops, demonstrations, entertainment and cooking demonstrations with celebrity chefs. For more information see www.ecofestnelsontasman.co.nz
Addendum: Since this article was written the greenhouse has be ‘upgraded’ to include an active solar heat storage system featuring an old solar water panel hooked up to a salvaged copper hot water cylinder (stripped of insulation) via simple thermosyphon circulation (see photos). The water cylinder heats up during the day and radiates heat as it cools down at night protecting plants from frost damage. The plan is also to use ‘Aircell’ foil bubble wrap pulled over the greenhouse on winter nights to help reduce heat loss.