Josh’s House, building a sustainable house in the suburbs
I am very excited to be sharing my chat with Josh Byrne with you today, who you may know as the popular WA presenter on ABC’s Gardening Australia. Over the past 10 years in particular, we have watched him as he has shared all sorts of different practical and inspiring ways to create productive and water sensitive gardens. A favourite of mine was what I remember as the “Verge Project” which I thought was just brilliant, where Josh turned what was essentially unused and uncared for land out on the street, into something productive for the community. I have always been a big fan so must admit I was a little star struck when he said he was more than happy to have a chat!
Josh is a very busy guy being a regular contributor to the Gardening Australia Magazine and author of two books on sustainable gardening and landscape design – Small Space Organics and The Green Gardener. He is a regular guest on ABC talk back radio programs around the country and is a popular public speaker.
Small Space Organics is a fantastic guide for organic gardening techniques. Josh ” takes a detailed look at the use of companion plants to attract beneficial insects; at soil building and plant nutrition (including ways to turn food scraps and garden waste into valuable soil conditioner through composting and worm farms); discusses key maintenance techniques such as organic pest and disease control, and pruning for plant health and production. A guide to propagation methods ensures you will have a steady supply of plants to fill your garden across the seasons.” It is going in my stocking this year for Christmas
Josh has his own company Josh Byrne and Associates, who are well known and respected for their commitment to projects that “promote positive environmental and community outcomes”. They work out of Fremantle, Western Australia but offer services nationally and have carried out a wide range of projects across the commercial, community and government sectors. He is the recipient of three consecutive National Horticulture Media Association television awards, was recognised as the Australian Water Association’s Young Water Professional of the Year for WA in 2010 and the National Young Water Professional of the Year in 2011 for his commitment to promoting water sensitive gardening through the media. He has a young family and is about to complete his PhD.
As if that was not enough, he recently undertook the building of his first home! Being an expert in sustainability himself and with his wife also being an environmental scientist, there was never a question that the house build would be undertaken with as much sustainability entwined throughout as possible.
The result? The Josh’s House project, which set out to prove that resource efficient homes can be built at comparable cost and time frames to regular houses. The goals were for the homes (there are 2 on the property, one for his sister in law) to be thermally comfortable year round, without the need for air conditioning or additional heating; to generate more electricity than they use, and to harvest and recycle water. In addition to private garden areas, a common productive garden was to supply both houses with fresh food. The Josh’s House website is chock full of house and landscaping plans, fact sheets and videos to inspire anyone looking to build an energy and water saving home.
What sets this project apart from many others is that the building designs have achieved a 10 Star energy efficiency rating but they have still used conventional building materials and construction methods. This means the build can easily be replicated by industry and the wider community. The project also uses a sensitive approach to living in the suburbs through making the most of useful garden areas around the homes, which give natural shading, children’s play spaces and local food production – important health and lifestyle benefits that are rapidly disappearing from our suburbs.
Josh told me that he wanted to “prove you could build a sustainable home that did not need to be expensive or complicated”. It also needed to be the “typical Aussie Home” built by a “typical builder”. Highbury Homes who carried out the build, had never built a home with this rating of sustainability, so it was an adventure for all of them. Yet, it took just 6 months and 2 weeks to build and cost them $1200 per square metre, which is pretty standard for the average home build in terms of time and costs.
As this is their dream home, Josh said they then chose to up-spec things like the cabinetry and tiling and chose wider halls and doorways, as well as higher ceilings which gives universal access and a sense of spaciousness.
Here are some of the highlights from our chat.
There was a list of objectives including the homes being thermally comfortable year round, without the need for air conditioning or additional heating; to generate more electricity than they use; and harvest and recycle water – can you assess whether these things are being achieved yet?
The aim was for the homes to be 18 – 25 degrees all year round. We have installed temperature sensors and have committed to a three year performance monitoring regarding this, as well as power use and generation, and water use of all types on the property. This data will be published in both academic journals and popular media and as I have a research fellowship with Curtin University to monitor the project, it will be very thorough.
You are an Environmental Scientist, how did you end up on Gardening Australia and what is your PhD topic?
My PhD actually started ten years ago! I will be handing up my Thesis next year. The topic is (in a very small nutshell as it has a much more complicated title!) about Mains Water Neutral Gardening and I have developed a model as part of this. The book I wrote, Small Space Organics, tells the story about this.
Around the time I started my PhD as luck would have it, I was asked if I would like to do Gardening Australia! At the time I was headed down the Research and Development career pathway, but things took a different direction! I dropped the PhD to part time and here I am today.
You focus on water which is so vital to all of us but in particular the WA community and my home state of SA where water is such a massive problem. You talk about “swales and rain gardens” – can you tell us more about these two things?
This is a big focus. A range of things have been done to reduce our demand on drinking water on the property, through using our water efficiently and being creative with non mains water sources, such as rainwater and greywater. Our aim is to use less than a third of the typical Perth household mains water consumption, while maintaining a beautiful, productive and shady garden.
Both homes have been fitted with a separate rainwater tank to collect the rainwater from the entire roof area, which is roughly 200m2 per home. The front house has a 12,000L tank and the rear house has a larger 20,000L water tank, as there was more space available. We think these rain water tanks will supply all of our needs for water inside the houses for about eight months of the year, based on Perth’s rainfall. During dry summer months we expet the tanks will be empty and the water supply will automatically switch to mains water through the use of a mains water backup valve.
The water integration system is explained in greater detail in the Fact Sheet here and this is an excerpt.
‘”The rainfall on each roof surface is collected in gutters that fall into down pipes fitted with insect and leaf excluding rain heads. A ‘wet feed’ or ‘charged’ rainwater collection system which means that all the stormwater pipes between the gutters and tank inlet are permanently full of water. To eliminate the potential of the rainwater becoming stagnant during dry weather periods, a diversion valve has been fitted below ground to discharge this unwanted water into soakwells below the driveway. This valve can also be opened to divert the first rains of the season, as this will contain dust and other contaminants from the roof that have built up over the summer. Importantly, all pipes and openings are fitted with insect proof screens. When the rainwater tank is full, the excess water will discharge into the soakwells and infiltrate into the ground. To prevent the unlikely event of the soakwells becoming full and backing up into the rainwater tank, an air gap backflow prevention device has been installed.’
Read the in depth fact sheet about Integrated Water Systems on the Josh’s House site.
As a take home message for readers, what would be two key things you recommend people look at doing in their own homes to make a shift towards a more sustainable home?
I think the key thing is to stop and have a look at your energy bills so you can get an idea of what you are using and where you are in relation to the average household. This gives you a place to start. Then look at the most cost effective ways to make changes. The second thing I think, is to think about tackling urban sustainability through a garden. This is the most accessible way to increase your contribution to sustainability at the local level. Gardening allows you to participate in better waste management and grow food, it encourages bio diversity in your own backyard.
Are you enjoying living in the house? And what is next for Josh’s House?
I am loving living in the home! It really feels like a family home now. It is our first home and we are really settling down now and enjoying it after the high energy of the build time and sharing of the project. Our aim now is to keep the story vibrant. Over the coming year we will be gathering the performance data and be sharing with the community in a visual way, how you can compare your energy and water use to ours. We will also be sharing stories about other sustainable housing projects out there in the community.
You can download the amazing array of fact sheets and information, including the plans, from the Joshs’s House website on everything from landscaping, to solar, to water management. You can also watch all the episodes of the Josh’s House Videos. Here is episode 11 which takes you through the wonderful Open Day and will make you want to watch them all! I will be posting some more features on the project as they go forward into the next stage. Thanks Josh!