Way back in the heady days of civilization’s energy bacchanalia—about five years ago—two Australian women and their architect set about creating an environmentally friendly home on Sydney’s suburban scorched earth. They trucked in slim, sexy rainwater tanks from Queensland and a thermal chimney from Victoria and acquainted themselves with low-VOC house paints and floor oils. Then they tricked out their design to capture maximum amounts of sunshine, sea breeze, and precious rain, which they recycle not once but twice. Met with a cavalcade of Aussie media adulation upon its completion, a local green-housing legend was born.
Just a few beaches south of world-famous Bondi Beach, Mary Henning and Ann Wansbrough’s renovation of a semidetached cottage in Clovelly outperforms even today’s rigorous sustainable building codes—it uses 75 percent less town water than the average two-person home when the government’s maximum target is 40 percent. "Nobody was talking about water when we started—and it’s such an important issue on a dry continent," says Henning.
In the backyard, behind the pool’s stacked-stone wall, one finds the home’s sustainable showpiece—a pocket-sized water-treatment plant. To one side are three steel tanks, each with the capacity to store nearly 800 gallons of rainwater collected on the roof. Facing them is the green wall, a vertical garden and graywater filter in one. Combined, the measures mean that all water collected on the site is recycled and reused until its final stop in the toilet or the washing machine. Nothing is wasted, a boon to the parched parcel, as excess storm water is sent to an underground sump and allowed to seep back into the ground. The only demand on town water supplies is what’s needed for cooking and drinking.
The water system cost about $12,000, an expense that created a trade-off with other energy-saving strate-gies. Space on the roof has been reserved for photovoltaic cells, but in the meantime the women have joined a green power company to supply them with energy from accredited renewable sources. "We had to decide—do we try to make the house as energy efficient as possible or do we do the water thing?" Henning recalls. After several years of drought, the answer was clear.
The women arrived at their position on environmental responsibility by way of considered inquiry and faith, not fashion. In her late 50s, Henning is a management consultant for universities in Australia and the Pacific and is energized by blue-sky ideas. And, like Wansbrough, who works in social policy and is a minister for the Uniting Church in Australia, she is a great believer in community and "the power of the collective." "The whole point was to contribute to the discussion of green energy—to show it is possible to do these sorts of things," Henning says. "It was either do this, or make a very large contribution to the Australian Conservation Foundation."
But where would such a generous charitable donation leave her friends and fellow gourmands? The president of the foodie collective Beefsteak and Burgundy Club (Botany Bay chapter)—and keeper of its gavel and cellar—Henning routinely hosts serious feasts. Her record for dinner is 28. Though it required the procurement of new wineglasses for predinner drinks and each of the banquet’s four courses, and some clever seating arrangements in the house’s roughly 1,600 square feet, all had elbow room to spare. "I’ve got friends with much bigger houses, but they can’t do that sort of thing," she says.
Both food and sustainability were on Henning’s mind when discussing the design with architect Steve Kennedy: "I like to see the clouds when I’m cooking. I stand in the corner and look up at the sky or the trees and I could be anywhere in the country." A two-story wall of glass in the living room affords her these diverting views; Wansbrough, on the other hand, most often takes in the view from her home office on the floor above. Here Kennedy upended conventional wisdom, designing so that Wansbrough, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and has limited mobility, isn’t grounded on the first floor. As Henning says, "Why should a disabled person have to live downstairs and be prohibited from enjoying the view?" Kennedy echoes the importance of considering Wansbrough’s individual needs: "Ann’s disability was important in our concerns—but Mary and Ann embraced all the ideas and went, ‘Righto, where shall we go with this? What shall we do to make this happen?’ There ought to be awards for good clients."
To accommodate Wansbrough comfortably, Kennedy designed a straight staircase with deep treads and a small upper-level kitchenette. The kitchen island is on wheels so it can be moved out of the way to allow her wheelchair passage, and the spacious bathroom is fitted with wide-opening doors and reinforced grab rails, concessions so subtle and well detailed they go virtually unnoticed. Out back, near the green wall, a small therapy pool is as pretty as a pond when not being used by Wansbrough for her marathon exercise sessions in the warmer weather.
Intellectual fitness is equally high on life’s agenda for these two. Henning’s other passion is art, and she is assiduous about its placement and effect on the eye. "Almost every day I stop for a few minutes and just look at the paintings and see something new," she says, referring to the 20 small abstract works by Lezlie Tilley that run the height of the living-room walls, rising from earth to tree-canopy colors and "linking the two levels."
"It struck me as stupid to hang one painting downstairs and another above it for upstairs," she says. "We needed something to connect the space."
Books—thousands of them—sit in shelves that span the staircase opposite, another visual link as they rise toward the heavens, from detective novels to the theology section.
In all this, Kennedy had to adapt the women’s green-hued mission. With a sizable sum of money invested in the vertical garden, energy efficiency had to be achieved through ingenuity and deft design. Kennedy installed a new product called the Sun Lizard thermal chimney to suck warm air out of the house in summer and recir-culate it during winter. Solar technology on the roof provides power for the hot water system and heating for the pool while passive solar design succeeds in catching light all day long and avoiding the need for air-conditioning. A spate of crafty, drafty louvers and window adjustments create cross breezes, and Kennedy installed a cunning detail he calls the "windoor"—a false solid wall that opens all the way—to keep cool on hot days.
Mercifully, Sydney rarely gets bitterly cold, but Kennedy still wonders about the tenability of one of modernism’s hallmarks—all those lovely windows—in the face of increasing demand for thermal performance. "Louvers are about keeping the sun out and dealing with privacy, but they don’t keep the heat in. If you want a house to perform, you have to limit glazing," he says. "The aim is to find ways of moving from the fundamental model of houses for 50 years, which has been the glass box. It’s what we’ve all been designing, but the simple fact is no matter what you do, glass is a really poor insulator."
His thoughtful design has spared the women from large electricity bills, but financial gain is not their primary concern. "The important thing is the house itself is such a delight to live in," Henning says. "There’s the sense of space, the fact that you can have all the things you’d like in a house twice the size." And, of course, there is the very individual comfort factor. "The fact that Ann has a need to do with accessibility is no different to the other needs that influence the way we want to live. Her needs are no different to my need to have space for art on the wall."
Karen Pakula is a staff writer at the Sydney Morning Herald. After 15 years of her own home renovations—on one old terrace, with one old husband, a builder—she headed to Melbourne, Australia, for a tutorial in pragmatic, economical modernism from ultra-creative couple Cat Macleod and Michael Bellemo. Pakula returned with a valuable lesson she plans to pass down to her children: The smartest way to build a dream home is to start from scratch.