Each of their families relied on rain water and Rosie’s family generated its own power with diesel engines until power was connected in 1956.
During their married life John and Rosie renovated many houses in Sydney. In 2004 they decided to leave Sydney behind and move to Newcastle. They renovated a 90-year-old house in Islington and renovated again in 2010 when they found a house in Mayfield that “had potential”.
The Mayfield house was built in the 1920s and in 1976 was converted to three flats. John and Rosie removed three kitchens and three bathrooms and opened up small dark rooms. They knocked down walls and put up beams. A breeze curtain was installed which can divide the open plan area into zones for heating − a cave with a curtain or a light-filled open area.
Solar orientation is critical in enabling John and Rosie to have an energy-efficient house. They believe houses need the northern and eastern sun for heat in the winter and for light. They installed pergolas with deciduous vines to let in the winter sun and shield themselves in the hot summer. The yard had grass but no trees when they bought it. They planted some 50 trees and shrubs, including a fig tree from which they make jam, and established a vegetable patch.
John and Rosie planted “three lines of defence” to cool the front of their western-facing house. There are trees, shrubs and plants on the nature strip, tall hedges at the front fence, more trees in the garden and a grapevine on a pergola attached to the house. Rosie said the trees create a breeze line – a microclimate − and often she sees people pausing in front of their house on hot days to be in the shade. John says the house is some seven degrees cooler in summer just because of the trees.
Twelve solar panels on the roof create more power than is used. The couple sells all the power to the grid and buys back what is used. In five years, electricity has cost them nothing and they receive a significant cheque from the power company every quarter. This system, however, ends in December and they are now investigating battery storage. On the roof is a vacuum evacuated solar hot water system which heats the water in their tank. They only switch on the booster heater at their main power board around four or five times a year when they have lots of people stay over or there are five consecutive days with no sun. Essentially, they have free hot water.
They converted a bedroom on the north and east to a sunroom, bringing the outside in. The hardwood wall frames were left and gauze to keep the insects out was installed along with bistro blinds (clear thick plastic) which are opened in summer. On a winter’s day the warmth from this room radiates to the internal part of the house. They also installed a glass door and large window on the northern side and a window in John’s office to let in the northern sun and light. All the windows in the house are gauze so can be locked but partially open to allow breezes from all compass points.
Another method to reduce summer heat was to put a floor vent under the fridge, covered with fine gauze, to draw up cool air from under the house. There are also two gauze vents in the pantry floor. In winter the vents are covered so the cool air cannot enter.
Over many years of renovating they have learned to be resourceful, moving some walls and retaining others. This has involved cleaning bricks, relocating temporary plumbing, retaining and recycling original period features and reproducing other features. While renovating, they always lived in the house, which had its challenges, especially as their five children came along.
Their bathrooms are deliberately small to allow more floor space for other rooms. Their current bathroom is only 1.8 metres wide and includes a shower, a basin that doubles as a laundry tub, full-sized bath, toilet, washing machine and dryer (rarely used) and a broom cupboard. They built an en suite which is 90cm wide with access from the kitchen as well as the main bedroom.
John and Rosie believe buying second-hand rather than new is an important part of living sustainably. They find wonderful treasures and bargains such as good quality clothes and toys at op shops. An added bonus is that charities are helped. They also enjoy garage sales, markets and antique centres. During the renovations they recycled a lot of the timber in the house, selling or donating what wasn’t required.
Every day John and Rosie make an enormous difference to the environment through their lifestyle choices and their decisions around heating, cooling, insulation and lighting in their energy efficient home.
To learn more about sustainable living, John recommends
- Pope Francis Laudato Si – On Care for Our Common Home
- The Francis Effect II, a series of essays about Pope Francis
- Michael Mobbs Sustainable Food and Sustainable House
- Mark Diesendorf Sustainable Energy solutions for Climate Change
- Tim Flannery Atmosphere of Hope – Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis
- Sharyn Munro Rich Land Wasteland
- Rob Hopkins The Transition Handbook
- 'The power of two' on the diocesan website
- Social justice on the diocesan website
- Catholic Earthcare