Rating the System

New homes reach out across the western suburbs of Melbourne - without an eave insight

New homes reach out across the western suburbs of Melbourne - without an eave insight

Published in Green Magazine, Issue 16

An eight-star energy-efficient house touted to be “Australia’s first zero-emissions home” was opened to great fanfare this April.

It’s a huge leap forward from 1990 when houses averaged about 1 star on the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS) scale. Before the introduction of national energy efficiency regulations in 2003, less than one per cent of Australian houses achieved the current standard of 5 stars (which rises to 6 stars on May 1, 2011) however a 2006 study by RMIT’s Centre for Design suggested Australia was aiming too low after finding American and British homes designed for comparable climates would be rated at an average of 7 stars.

So should we be worried, ashamed, pleased or dismayed with our star rating system? Is it a relevant measure and is the Master Builders Association right to say greater efficiencies could be achieved by improving older homes first?

The CSIRO designed and built the zero-emissions (AusZEH) house with partners that include Henley Property Group and Delfin Land Lease, and its experts estimate 13% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions come from home energy use.

If all the new housing in Australia was built to the same standard for the next nine years, the country would save 63 million tonnes of greenhouse gas – equivalent to taking all of Australia’s private cars off the road for more than two and half years.

But drive around any new housing estate in Melbourne’s outer west – the third fastest growing area in Australia – and you will see row upon row of homes with heat-absorbing, dark-tiled roofs and no eaves. They may meet the 5-star standard, but they will need a lot of air conditioning to make them liveable.

“Without basing the star rating system on performance, it is meaningless,” believes Jan Brandjes, a Dutch-born, Canadian-trained expert in sustainable home design.

He is keen to promote performance-testing of houses because he believes the software used to assess star ratings assumes standards that are rarely achieved.

“The software assumes a building is (air) tight but there is no way of checking this. It addresses the design issue well but doesn’t address way a home is constructed.

“If the insulation is not put in right or it has gaps all over the place, it will be leaking air like a sieve; as long as they leak, no amount of double glazing will keep the energy out of those holes.”

Henley Homes’ energy and sustainability specialist Adam Selvay agrees.

“I have tested about 20 homes and you see a wide range of leakage rates,” Selvay said.

“I would like to see the Air Change per Hour rating given a certain star rating so there is some benefit for putting in the effort to get it right; at the moment there is no incentive to builders to do this.

“[The software] also doesn’t take into account the carbon emissions or the type of heating you use.”

Henley Homes can build the same zero-emissions four-bedroom dwelling on any suitable block for about $315,000 – that includes double glazing, a 6kW solar power, solar heating, extra insulation, retractable shading and a wafflepod concrete slab.

The wafflepod slab incorporates polystyrene under the concrete for extra insulation and adds half a star to the home’s rating. However, the home’s air-tightness adds nothing to its rating.

Brandjes feels so strongly about this he now works in the business of blowdoor testing – checking the air-tightness of homes by blowing air through the sealed up front door and checking how much is leaking out.

“I’m not saying blowdoor testing is the be-all and end-all but it’s one of the tools that can be used.”

He tested the zero emissions house, which is now spot on (if the Air Change per Hour rate drops too low, the quality of air in a home is compromised and can risk the inhabitants’ health).

However, two award-winning homes he has checked that were built to seven-star designs failed to meet even a 5-star standard – one ranked as low as 2.5-3 stars.

“We need to address two areas – the software needs to include performance-based testing, and we need to educate builders in the importance of sealing gaps.”

The Master Builders Association believes it is already addressing the issue of training builders, with the Green Living training scheme launched in Victoria in 2005 and since rolled out into NSW, Tasmania and WA.

However, the group’s vocal stance in the Federal election was due to way the star rating system is being implemented.

“With the move to Six Star it is imperative that the industry is properly consulted and allowed to prepare for any new regulations,” Master Builders Association of Victoria deputy executive director Radley de Silva said.

“The cost involved also needs to be managed (and) there also needs to be greater consumer education and incentive to reduce energy consumption – as there has been with water use.

“There seems to be this focus on increasing star ratings on new housing stock but we believe there is greater opportunity to improve the star rating on existing stock. This would be a more sensible way of improving the average star rating across the board.”

This is the area that Mandatory Disclosure aims to cover – by making it compulsory for all homes to be star rated at point of sale or lease. The scheme has been running in the ACT since 1999 and is due to be introduced nationally on May 1, 2011.

However Brandjes see the current gaps in the system as becoming potentially disastrous when mandatory disclosure starts.

“It’s bad enough that someone spends money on a 5-6-7- star home then finds their energy bills are still high, but if every home that is sold has to be star rated, on what are they going to base the assessment – on the design? How will they assess insulation? And who’s going to do this – if people sell their home every seven years then that’s about 1.2 million homes a year – we don’t have the manpower to do that.”

The not-for-profit Association of Building Sustainability Assessors – which trained the home assessors for the now-defunct Green Loans scheme – believes its 6500 members across Australia can do the job – but agrees the federal government needs to hurry up and decide precisely what the job is.

“It’s a federal scheme but the states will be implementing it … at the moment there are a lot of different schemes and checklists – it all gets a bit messy,” ABSA chairman Wayne Floyd said.

ABSA has already released its concept model for mandatory disclosure, which states: “It is imperative to improve the existing housing stock … as new homes only contribute 2-4% of the total market. Existing homes can be rated using the NatHERS tools if a plan is readily available, and if not, there is already innovation that will allow this to be done without a plan.”

In the ACT, assessments take into account features such as building fabric, window design, orientation, air leakage and cross ventilation.

Another useful tool, Floyd suggests, are infrared cameras.

“It shows straightaway which windows are leaking air or where there’s no insulation in the walls without being invasive,” he said.

However, when this is sorted out, an even greater challenge looms – how to assess energy used by household appliances.

“When you look at appliances it gets really messy,” Floyd said. “Because it comes down to not just what you have in the house, but how you use those appliances.”

Further reading:








Imagine a way to reduce erosion and pollution in waterways and help water and fertilise your garden too. The solution might be as simple as disconnecting your home’s downpipes

and letting the water flow into an “ephemeral creek” – if you have a large enough block and the right soil.

For the rest of us, rather than risk flooding your garden and those of your neighbours, consider building a simple raingarden to capture and treat run-off before it hits the drains.

But don’t creeks and rivers need more water to stay healthy? The idea of reducing water flows might seem counter-intuitive, but the fast growth of Australia’s cities – and with it increased amounts of hard, impermeable surfaces – has resulted in waterways in urban areas across the country damaged by fast and too frequent stormwater flows and pollutants.

“The problem we have is the quantity and quality of stormwater flowing into our waterways,” says Phil Edwards, Melbourne Water’s team leader for stormwater quality.

“It flows into waterways too frequently, causing erosion; and the run-off from roofs and driveways also carries a degree of pollution and sediment, which is deposited in our waterways.”

Raingardens are designed to collect water from any hard surface – roads, driveways, footpaths or roofs – and to filter and clean it before it hits the nearest river. The filtering is largely done by the soil structure and microbes as well as through absorption by the roots of plants in the raingarden – a process called biofiltration.


As well as obvious pollutants such as oil, litter and animal faeces that are swept into stormwater drains from the street, dust, leaves and airborne pollution can also flow in from house roofs. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the main culprits, but the good news is that both are essential for plant growth. The goal is to feed raingarden plants rather than encourage algae in waterways.

Surprisingly, tiny amounts add up to make a huge difference even in large bodies of water. According to Phil Edwards, in 1999 Port Phillip Bay received 7000 tonnes of nitrogen – 1000 tonnes more than it is able to process. In Western Australia the Swan River has been hit by algal blooms and in NSW in July there were 11 “red” alerts for algal blooms in various waterways.

South-east Queensland has had an especially bad 12 months, with rains last summer washing high levels of pollutants into waterways.


Stormwater harvesting programs are being introduced in most major cities as planning departments adopt the principles of Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD).

“We’re looking at alternative technologies such as small-scale filters that can fit into urban streets,” says Edwards. “In all major cities you’ll see these appearing, built by local councils or water authorities.”

In Sydney more than 80 stormwater harvesting projects should save about two billion litres of water a year. The city of Orange has devised a scheme to supplement its drinking water supplies with stormwater. The scheme captures some of the high flows in Blackmans Swamp Creek during storms and transfers these into the nearby Suma Park Dam to augment the city’s bulk water supply.


At its simplest, a raingarden can be a swale or depression alongside a driveway or footpath, or even at a low point in your garden, where rainwater can collect and gradually soak into the soil. (Swales created close to buildings should be lined like a pond to avoid damage to the foundations.) We covered this style of raingarden in “Rainwater Gardens” in Sanctuary 4.

If you have installed rainwater tanks plumbed to your laundry, bathroom, or kitchen, you have already reduced the amount of water that’s going to the stormwater drain. Depending on the capacity of your tanks, during wetter months your tank may overflow. By absorbing and filtering the overflow water, raingardens can help ensure all or most of the water that falls on your home and garden remains on-site.

According to Anjali Brown, the Alternative Technology Association’s water projects manager, “Filtering the overflow from your tank into a raingarden will help you get the most out of the rainwater on your roof. Keep in mind, however, that a raingarden which only receives irrigation through overflow will need highly drought resistant plants. One way to provide more water to your raingarden in this situation is to divert your first flush device into the raingarden as well. A first flush device diverts the first flow of water from your roof, which may contain pollutants, away from your tank each time it rains. Usually the first flush water gets sent down the stormwater drain but by diverting it to the raingarden, your filtering plants will get a little extra water every time it rains which will help them survive.”

The best type of raingarden to work in conjunction with a water tank is a plant bed raingarden. Plant bed raingardens are either an above-ground planter box or an in-ground lined trench. Inside the plant beds are layers of gravel and sand that slow water flow, filtering out sediment and pollutants from the water as it passes through. The filtered stormwater is collected via a slotted drainage pipe at the bottom of the filtration bed, and can then be discharged into your garden or the stormwater system.

Raingardens should be planted out with species that are particularly good at removing pollutants, such as Lomandra longifolia or Carex appressa, and hardy, indigenous species that will survive the dry periods between rainfalls such as other Lomandra species and Dianella species.

It is important to remember that any run-off needs to be kept out of neighbouring properties and a registered plumber is needed to connect your raingarden back to the main stormwater drain. Some WSUD principles may clash with local council by-laws, while other councils may have incentive schemes that are worth registering with first, so check before you build.


Melbourne Water is campaigning to get 10,000 raingardens built across the city by 2013. Its website (www.melbournewater.com.au/ raingardens) has a range of information sheets about above- and in-ground raingardens, including the materials you will need to make them yourself, as well as which plants to select, and how to work out the size of raingarden you’ll need for your situation. These information sheets would be applicable to conditions around the country (though it would be best to seek local information about indigenous plantings).

If you would prefer an above-ground raingarden you may need to buy or make a lined raised garden bed or buy a water tank and have a drainage hole installed – see the details on the Melbourne Water site to find out the size of the drainage hole you need.

Water Sensitive Urban Design
Melbourne Water, including links to instruction sheets for building www.melbournewater.com.au/raingardens
Stuart McQuire’s book, Water Not Down the Drain www.notdownthedrain.org.au
Healthy Waterways
Alternative Technology Association
www.ata.org.au/sustainability/stormwater- capture/
Some tank suppliers include:
www.tankworks.com.au www.cessnocktankworks.com.au mtwatertanks.com.au/GardenBeds.php

Musical’s flush of brilliance

menopause the musical

Right up until a straitlaced housewife from Dubbo starts crooning the Platters hit  ‘Only You’ to a quivering, magenta-pink phallic microphone, the material in Menopause the Musical had been entertaining but not confronting.

The title alone gives fair warning that issues of hot flushes, fuzzy memory and lost youth would covered, but her friends’ entreaty to try out some ‘Good Vibrations’ took the production to a different level – both in terms of joyful laughter turning raucous, and in the message of self-discovery behind the fun.

Menopause the Musical turns of the contrivance that four women meet in a department store and, over a battle to secure a bargain bra, form a sisterly friendship that involves singing daggy versions of pop classics.

Retail therapy takes on a new meaning as the four explore various departments, discussing as they go their discomfort, anguish, fear and confusion at the dreaded Change that is overcoming their bodies and with it, their self-image, careers and relationships.

Most of the songs are cleverly reworked – such as “In the guestroom or on the sofa, my husband sleeps at night” sung to The Lion Sleeps Tonightand It’s in His Kiss bemoaning chocolate binges going “On my Hips”.

While the characters – a Power Woman (Maria Mercedes), a Soap Star (Jennifer Levy), Earth Mother (Michelle Collins) and Dubbo Housewife (Andrea Creighton) remain nameless stereotypes we can both laugh at yet relate to – all four performers (plus swing performer-cum-resident director Carolyn Waddell) deliver them with excellent singing voices, which were matched by simple but effective choreography. Originally set in American, and offering a few new songs and new cast to the last Australian production, this version is a month into a six-month Australian tour.

I found the phrase “delightfully daggy” ruminating around my head as I watched the first half and listened to the audience slowly warm into joyful, spontaneous laughter.

Then came that pink microphone.

There are many reasons why incontinence and female masturbation are rarely discussed – common embarrassment and cultural taboos among them – so for playwright Jeanie Linders to deal with them while causing only minor audience squirm amid the laughter speaks volumes about her skill in creating lovable characters that you can comfortably laugh at as well as laughing with. Much of that comes from their honesty and vulnerability, and their lack of judgement when sharing their anxieties.

It’s not a subject or style that will suit everyone – teenagers are unlikely to get it – and a couple behind me left after the first song, although I sincerely hope it’s because she had a hot flush or he was worried he’d left the oven on, because otherwise they would have missed an uplifting message of self-love and shared support for nothing.

Menopause the Musical is at the Comedy Theatre, Exhibition Street, until August 29. Details: www.hitproductions.com.au/menopause/

Slick sister act’s rock-solid

Stonefield aka Iotah, photographed for Triple J's Unearthed High contest

Stonefield aka Iotah, photographed for Triple J's Unearthed High contest

UPDATE 2011: When I interviewed Iotah in 2008, after they won the Macedon Ranges Push Start Battle of the Bands contest, I was struck by both their maturity and eclectic taste in music – lots of Hendrix and Zeppelin style rock, but all the new alternative sounds, too.

I was stoked, but not surprised, when the girls beat bands from across Australia to win Triple J’s Unearthed High contest, earning them a day’s recording time in Sydney and a free concert at Holly’s new school, Gisborne High, playing backup to rising Melbourne band British India. Since then they have enjoyed growing airtime on Triple J and, despite having to change their name to Stonefield due to a clash of naming rights, have a huge fanbase across Australia and growing media presence. A residency at iconic Melbourne venue the Tote and an invitation to play at the UK’s classic festival, Glastonbury, are the next steps on their broadening horizon.


June 10, 2008

Macedon Ranges Telegraph

Words: Jane Canaway

On a windswept hill just outside of remote Darraweit Guim, a shed pulses to the sounds of slick, solid rock.

It’s being produced by the four music-loving sisters of award-winning bank Iotah, who are working on their distinctive form of old-school rock.

Citing Led Zeppelin as an inspiration, the girl – Amy, 18, Hannah, 15, Sarah, 14, and Holly, 10 – have been playing together for about three years and have a remarkably democratic work ethic.

While Amy, the lead vocalist and drummer, writes most of the lyrics, the rest is collaborative.

“We all do a little bit; like if I come up with something on the guitar, we’ll work out some stuff around that,” says lead guitarist Hannah.

“Yes, but we also give each other ideas,” adds keyboardist Sarah.

Holly, whose bass guitar is almost as big as her, started playing about three years ago, around the time her sisters also took up their instruments.

Surprisingly for siblings, the four admit they have always played and worked well together and say their parents’ choice of music was a strong influence.

Last month, Iotah won the 2008 Macedon Ranges Push Start Battle of the Bands – and with it a day’s free studio time at The Sound Vault Recording Studio. They also won the Mitchell Shire Battle of the Bands. They will thrash it out against other young musos in the Push Start’s version of regional finals in October.

All four practise daily, rehearse together weekly, and believe they will play together for many years.

Amy is doing a bachelor of Australian popular music degree at NMIT and plans to follow that with a teaching degree. Hannah is taking VET music at Whittlesea Secondary College and Sarah, also at Whittlesea, has also chosen a musical elective. Holly is at Darraweit Guim Primary School.

With several live perforance behind them – from 50th birthday parties to school fund-raisersj, open mic sessions and at the Youyth Week finale in Broadmeadows earlier this year – their next challenge is against about 400 bands in the worldwide Emergenza contest.

Dozens of Victorian hopefuls will plan int ehfirstround play-offs in Richmond in June and Jly for the chance to represent Auastralia at the international finals in Germany and, ultimately, win six weeks’ paid studio time in Sweden.

  • Iotah lays at the Central Club in Richmond on July 7. Contact them via their wepage at www.myspace.com/Iotah

Volcanic awakening

volcanoPublished in Green magazine, July-August 2010


One of the positive things to come out of the decade- long drought in Southern Australia has been the development of some innovative water-saving plans. One of the most impressive is that of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Jane Canaway meets its senior designer, Andrew Laidlaw.

After being held in the fierce grip of drought for the best part of a decade, the “wasteful” sound of running water has become a distant memory in much of southern Australia.

In Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, the Fern Gully has been dry for many years, except after occasional rain, and visitors have grown used to ducks dabbling in muddy puddles where lakes used to be. However, a solution is in sight, and a key to its success lies in the recent re-awakening of a long-dormant volcano in the Gardens’ south-east corner. That landscaping project – completed this March – is stage one of a longer-term plan to create a sustainable water supply for the RBG, starting with approximately 68 megalitres of stormwater harvested from the nearby suburb of South Yarra. This water will enter the gardens through two stormwater pipes that will deliver the water into the Gardens’ lakes where it will be filtered on-site through a series of wetlands. This has the added benefit of removing 68 megalitres of diluted oil, dog faeces, salt and other pollutants washed from nearby streets that would normally run into the Yarra River.

In 1876 William Guilfoyle designed a reservoir in the shape of a bluestone-lined volcano that appeared to rise from the highest point of the Royal Botanic Gardens, with lawns created to mimic the lava flows between massed planting of shrubs, representing outcrops of land. For nearly 70 years it was filled with water from the Yarra River, which was then gravity fed to the rest of the gardens.

“It was possibly inspired by Guilfoyle’s plant collecting trips around the South Pacific,” senior designer Andrew Laidlaw said. “The Volcano was designed as a ‘Garden Folly’, a feature that visitors would come across in their meanderings around the gardens. “It holds 1.4 megalitres of water, which is enough for one cycle of our current irrigation.” However, Guilfoyle’s plan was plagued with many problems – including the loss of fresh water in the lower Yarra after waterfalls at Queens Street were blasted in 1879 to alleviate flooding and allow larger boats upstream. By the 1950s the irrigation system was attached to mains water and the volcano was locked up and slowly forgotten. Hidden by dense stands of olive trees, eucalypts and weeds, it was passed by generations of joggers and walkers without its being noticed – until a 1997 master plan called for its redevelopment.

Then drought hit. Toxic blue-green algae became a regular problem in the Gardens’ lakes, and mud flats were a common appearance in the Ornamental Lake – so a rescue plan seemed more appropriate than a simple redevelopment.

Laidlaw considers himself “very lucky” to be the one who landed the “plum job” of revitalising the feature – and he believes the timing was perfect, too. “If I’d been doing this five years ago we would probably have just done a pretty water feature, but now with the current water crisis it’s become an integral part of the Gardens’ water system,” he said. Along with Richard Barley, Peter Symes and Stephen Paterson, Laidlaw is part of a highly water-smart team that meant the RBG was one of the first Australian Botanic Gardens to develop an award- winning irrigation management plan that has been used overseas as a blueprint for other gardens.

While working on a revamped layout and drought-friendly plantings, Laidlaw consulted with both hydraulic and civil engineers about the possibility of filling the volcano with stormwater. “It was discovered that large amounts of stormwater from nearby suburbs was going straight into the Yarra [River] or to Albert Park and into the sea. Because stormwater hits the river fast it stirs it up and affects the flow rate, as well as carrying road rubbish and pollutants. By redirecting water through the gardens first, it reduces the water flow rate and cleans it. “The extra 68 megalitres is not enough to water the whole gardens but eventually, as part of stage 3, we hope to siphon off 120–150 megalitres of water required through a sewerage–water harvesting scheme,” Laidlaw said.

Becoming totally water-sufficient will be expensive, but Melbourne City Council wants all its parks off potable water-irrigation. Revamping the volcano cost $1.5 million and the next stage is to build the Working Wetlands in the Ornamental, Central and Nymphaea Lakes, which will cost about $2.5 million. Project Manager Stephen Paterson said tenders have been called for and it is hoped the 12-month project will start later this year.

Of the 68 megalitres captured, allowing for evaporation and overflow, “the modelling indicates we will be able to substitute about 40% of potable water with harvested stormwater,” Paterson said. The sewerage-harvesting scheme – if funding can be found for it – will cost at least $10 million. By contrast, water costs the gardens between $100,000 and $120,000 a year – and that is after spending $4 million on a new irrigation system in 1993, which has cut water use by more than half to 130 megalitres a year. “What’s exciting is we’ve got a whole new way of working with water that is environmentally friendly. And we’re actually bringing water to Fern Gully for the first time in years and bringing water to the parts of the garden that need reinvigorating. All based around the volcano.”


Two stormwater pipelines will be diverted to the RBG, carrying about 68 megalitres of water a year into the Ornamental Lake and a receiving wetland in Nymphaea Lake. The water goes through a gross pollutant trap to remove larger pieces of rubbish and sediments before flowing through a series of wetlands where less visible pollution is removed. Wetlands will be constructed in the Ornamental, Central and Nymphaea Lakes. The lake silt will be removed and clay used to line the area and build levees, creating pools of varying depths to hold the stormwater and selected wetland plants, which will grow in different depths of water. A bio-film of bacteria and fungi will grow on the large plant surface area and act as the engine of the wetland, removing nutrients from the water as it slowly flows through the wetland. Plants are also chosen for their ability to take up nutrients and top growth will be harvested and composted to remove the nutrients from the system.

Water from the Nymphaea Lake then flows through the Fern Gully – where waterfalls and mini rapids aerate the water – and into the Central and Ornamental lakes. Water will be circulated through the lakes and wetlands and pumped to the highest point in the Gardens, Guilfoyle’s Volcano. From this reservoir, garden beds on the Volcano slopes will be watered by sub-surface irrigation. The water will then flow back to the Nymphaea Lake and so will circulate through the wetlands; the whole cycle takes about 30 days. By pumping water from the deeper parts of the lake any layers of warm and cool water are mixed, which helps reduce the frequency and duration of Blue-Green algae blooms. Floating garden beds will be installed in the lakes and act as treatment wetlands, as the plants’ bio film-covered roots remove nutrients and improve the water quality.

After the fires: The healing power of a cuppa



New, green tendrils contrast with the charred timber of a lost home

Strathewen resident Robert Bell thought he’d been coping well all year.

A sensitive man by nature, he fiddles with a home-rolled cigarette and cup of coffee while remembering his escape from the Black Saturday fires with his 94-year-old neighbour, but his voice remains calm and doesn’t recall feeling afraid.

Nearly a year later, he is still looking for a shed to live in, but he has developed a daily routine that helps: mornings spent weeding the bush – for the love of it – a lunchtime visit to the Hurstbridge support centre for a cuppa and a chat, then off to his shift work in a haulage firm.

Then, around Christmas, he suddenly felt a huge loss.

“I feel like I’ve lost my whole identity,” he said then, surprised by the force of it. “I think it’s only just hit me.”

Individuals are finding each their own path to recovery, which has to be taken at their own pace, but as they prepared for the February 7 anniversary, many spoke of an overwhelming exhaustion.

Driving along the St Andrews-Kinglake Road, there is a mixture of rebuilt homes, new slabs showing promise for the future – and land for sale by those who got so far then decided they could go no further.

“Everyone was going to return to start with,” recalls Sonja Parkinson, whose house was one of about 30 lost in Ninks Road, St Andrews. Miraculously, no one was injured – at least not physically.

“I think for some people it suddenly all got too hard.”

Weighed down with a chest infection, a fractious three-year-old and a mountain of work to be done rebuilding both their business and a shed for temporary accommodation on their creek-side site, she had almost hit the wall herself.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m whinging because all the government help and donations have been really good, but everything just takes so much effort – everyone’s exhausted.

“It’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of people who are very vulnerable will find it really difficult to get through – I wouldn’t be surprised if not all the money had been accessed at the end.”

Applications for grants close in February and many credit the Hurstbridge Support Centre – run by a band of volunteers since March – with helping them sort through the paperwork and keep going.

For at least six days a week over the past 10 months, a band of volunteers has been there to support those affected by the Black Saturday fires.

Ask how they did it and organiser Helen Legg will say the team could not have managed without the support of the survivors themselves, some of whom cooked meals, others unloaded trucks of boxes and furniture and one even donated $1000 after burglars broke into the Hurstbridge-based centre and stole money from the sale of fund-raising calendars.

“Most of these people are very independent and they need to give something back,” she explains.

In-kind gifts and those who keep giving

There has been a lot of giving over the past year – first the generous donations of cash and in-kind goods and help in the immediate wake of the fires, then the ongoing kindness, labour, sympathy, and non-judgemental support that volunteers have contributed since then – some on a daily basis.

At the Hurstbridge centre – unofficially nicknamed Helen’s Place – a dedicated band of women have put in hours of effort to meet the ever-changing needs of displaced residents from nearby St Andrews, Strathewen, Arthurs Creek, Strath Creek, Kinglake and further afield.

Begging the use of an empty weatherboard opposite the primary school – generously given by an owner who turned down an 18-month lease in favour of its community use with no guaranteed rent – the centre has become a second home to many survivors who call by, often daily, for a coffee, chat, quiet cry or just a packet of toilet paper and some new clothes.

“In the early days we had a lot of people who were very traumatised and who still hadn’t even accessed any government support. There were people who were still shell shocked and a lot of elderly people who were trying to cope with the whole cleaning up their house and just became so overwhelmed because every time they thought all the black soot had gone the wind would blow it all back in,” Helen recalled.

The mix of personalities at the Hurstbridge centre helped them break through, buoyed by the constant banter and laughter that the close friends all share – although when the visitors have gone for the day and a bottle of Chardy is opened, the humour often turns dark: “That’s how we coped,” Fiona explained.

Quieter visitors tended to hang around in the back rooms with down-to-earth, natural comedian Fiona, who would put folk at ease until they were ready to talk about accessing more formal aid.

“We’d be constantly taking people down to Arthurs Creek and Diamond Creek to get them hooked up with those official government services, or to get them a blue form that gave them access to Salvos or St Vincent de Paul and other grants,” Helen continued.

In the winter – one of the coldest on record and a nightmare for those still ‘camping out’ – the centre set up a cosy lounge area and a makeshift laundry in the carport, and the girls would do people’s washing as they shopped or battled the endless paperwork.

When Mick Gatto reportedly had a run in with Christine Nixon about donating $800,000 that she allegedly rejected, Helen rang Jon Faine on ABC Radio “just for a laugh” and said “if Mick Gatto wants to do something I’ve got a long list of people who need white goods”.

While Helen never heard from Mr Gatto, she did get a call from the Bayside Church who’d been wanting to contribute; they agreed to set up a white goods program that is just starting to wind down, after contributing more than $200,000 worth of new cookers, fridges, washing machines – all specially chosen to meet families’ specific needs – as well as laptops for Year 12 students and businesses.

Back in her ‘normal’ job as a flight attendant, Helen met Bill Shorten on a flight and asked him to organise a visit from Beaconsfield mine survivor Brant Webb.

“He really spoke to them – he really understood what they were going through and put in so much time with people,” Helen said.

Then there was lobbying for containers for people to store this largesse, as well as specific projects, such as a replacement piano for a musician who’d lost everything and a new motorbike for a teenager who lost both his brand new bike and his best friend in the fires.

“He’s a great lad but his world had just crashed.

“We spent ages with him looking for the right replacement. Jake saved $1500, his mum and dad gave $1000 each, the two community health services in Nillimbuk gave $500 each, Diamond Valley Baptist Church gave $500 and Bayside Community Care gave $2500 and we gave a measly $100 for some gear, and we presented it to him two weekends ago,” Helen said. “I got a lovely text from him last weekend saying ‘I’ve been riding it all weekend and it’s sweet as – thanks so much’, and his mum texted to say ‘I can see a change in him already’. “

Being caught up in such a flood of physical and emotional needs have seen many volunteers – and survivors – develop a whole new set of skills. Others have re-thought their lives and, embracing the new, have moved on from lifestyles or relationships that suddenly seemed flawed.

Volunteers co-ordinated a number of working bees in the St Andrews area until public liability insurance became a problem. In Nillumbik, the council has taken over this task and is still keen to sign up new volunteers.

“We’ve been getting the Conservation Volunteers Australia to help out recently because all the regular volunteers are exhausted after helping all year,” Council co-ordinator Sue Aldred said.

First, swallow your pride…

Rebuilding: Colin, Sonja and Bobby are determined to stay.

Rebuilding: Colin, Sonja and Sam are determined to stay.

Ironically for folk who have spent the past 20 years supporting the East Timorese people through the Dili All-Stars, trombonist Sonja Parkinson and her husband Colin Buckler – former drummer with the Painters and Dockers – have found it hard being on the receiving end of help.

“We’ve found it really uncomfortable accepting all these things but we’ve had to learn to. It’s easier to accept the official grants than cash from individuals.”

After a distant cousin read about Sonja and Colin’s story online – how they sheltered in the burning house with three other families until the last minute, then escaped to a creek refuge, along with two lyre birds, just seconds before the house collapsed – Sonja even received help from an unknown Parkinson in Canada, who worked out they were related and sent cash.

The many thoughtful gifts have had a huge impact.

“Our case worker got us a Christmas tree, and Sam was given this lovely little table and chair set from some part-time bus drivers in Bacchus Marsh, plus we received a beautiful quilt… there are so many kind people.”

It’s good to have some positives to balance out memories such as the week after the fires, when each day would bring news of another friend confirmed lost from the hill above their house – Kinglake’s notorious Bald Spur Road, where only three people survived.

The journey home

Sonja and Colin kept visiting their block from day one, but others who stayed away are finding it harder to return.

Helen Legg has found that those who left their homes before the fires hit are dealing with rebuilding better than those who experienced the inferno. Those with young children are also finding the rebuilding hard work and Helen is also concerned that former residents who have found accommodation out of the area are not been getting the support they need.

Further along Ninks Road, retiree Steve Law has been slowing working away at preparing his block for rebuilding – a new house site has been excavated and the old footings will form the basis of a memorial garden – but when he finally reached the point where he felt ready to get his block BAL assessed for fire threat level, he discovered the free scheme had closed. He still plans to get a shed up and caravan onsite by February – but isn’t so optimistic about how he’ll persuade his wife Vicki to return.

“She’s not real keen,” he admits.

They stayed to fight the fire but, despite their toughened glass staying intact, their curtains exploded into flames from the radiant heat, forcing them to find refuge by the Diamond Creek – along with a small herd of goats, some ducks and a singed wallaby.

For many of those receiving rental help from insurance companies, the money runs out in early February – some earlier – so the financial pressure is on, too.

“People think we’re rolling in insurance money, but it’s cost me $19,000 just getting the block ready and, with the new building standards, everything’ll cost more, too,” he said.

No one is quite sure how they will react to the first code red day this summer; one case worker said it took her several hours to calm a Strathewen survivor who thought she smelled smoke on a 39C day in December.

Then there is the anniversary itself to deal with.

Sharing the experience – and strength

But there is a strong sense of sharing. A survivor now living in a caravan on her land relates how touched she was when a young man pulled up one evening with a six-pack of beer.

“He said ‘I’m living in a caravan too and I don’t know if your husband enjoys a drink, but I’ve been driving past every day on my way home from work and decided it was time to call in and say hello’.

“They ended up talking for hours.”

It’s the women who have really led the way with looking after each other.

One of the strongest support networks that has emerged in the aftermath of the fires is the Ladies of the Black Belt, formed when a group of St Andrews women realised how few of their neighbours they knew – and how many needed help and support.

“Most of us live on acreage so you don’t see a lot of your neighbours; we thought afterwards we really should get together and help each other through this thing,” Rae said.

A list of about 78 directly affected women in St Andrews North was pieced together and in May, 21 of them returned to the Black Belt for a lunch – held at the repaired vineyard home of Cathy Lance.

Since that first emotional meeting the group has remained in contact, meeting two or three times a month, cementing friendships, having fun and sharing enormous support.

“It is the silver lining that now we have discovered the friendship and support of so many talented, interesting individuals,” says Cathy.

“We meet for coffee about every three weeks,” adds Elizabeth, who knew 17 of those lost in the fires.

“It’s the only group of people I feel truly safe with.”

Widowed and rendered homeless on Black Saturday, Elizabeth admits she still has very bad days when she does not cope.

“I bumped into a neighbour outside the shops the other day and he said: ‘You good, Elizabeth?’ I’d had an awful week and just went off at him: ‘Of course I’m not good! How could I be good?’ “

But all agree that, without the fellowship of the Black Belt – and support from centres such as Helen’s Place – they would be far worse.

“We didn’t really have a plan when we started, and we still don’t have plan,” laughs Fiona, wife of a CFA volunteer, and a stalwart of the Hurstbridge support centre since day one. “We thought ‘Well, it’ll stay open at least a month’.”

Now they are hoping the centre might become a place to sell the art and handiwork survivors have created.

“I think that’s our strength,” counters Helen. “We changed to meet people’s needs as they emerged, and we’re still evolving.”

POST SCRIPT June 2010: Steve was right; his wife didn’t want to return and they have now bought a property in Albury, where they are settling in well. Rob has now retired and weeds all day long if he can – and feels a lot better for it. But, as the second winter sets in, Rae is still living in a caravan. At least one other person in this story is now divorced, and one is in a new relationship.

Greener lawns

Published in Sanctuary magazine, Issue 11


Words: Jane Canaway

Myoporum parvifolium used instead of grass in a nature strip.

Myoporum parvifolium used instead of grass in a nature strip.

A shady place to read; somewhere to catch the sun; a flat spot for games; lawns can provide all these and more, but their cost in terms of water use and maintenance has relegated them to the bottom of the green league.

Luckily, canny landscapers have been busy devising clever alternatives, including drought-tolerant turf and native grasses.

When considering the various options, gardeners should consider what it is they most want from a lawn. Should it be a place to play or to entertain, or do you want a lawn for purely aesthetic reasons?

Lawn Alternatives


If your aim is to create an area of low-growing, lush greenery to set off surrounding beds, then groundcovers may suffice. “I like to use Myoporum parvifolium to create an area of green contrast, with stepping stones set into it,” says garden designer Wendy Clarke who, after training with Sustainable Gardening Australia, is accredited to offer environmental advice. “You can’t walk on it but it has pretty pink flowers in spring and it looks lovely all year round.”

Other hardy plants that create a dense cover include many saltbushes (such as Atriplex semibaccata, Enchylaena tomentosa and Einadia nutans), which are also fire-retardant and provide habitat and food for skinks.

Many non-grasses will not tolerate traffic, but the new fine-leafed Lomandra cultivars are impressively hard wearing. Garden designer Liz Turner used it to great effect to replace some dead lawn around a trampoline. “The site is in full sun and the soil was pure clay so I dug in lots of compost first, then planted it out with Lomandra ‘Lime Tuff’,” she said. Two years later and despite heavy use by four boys and a Labrador dog the soft, tussocky mounds are looking lush and healthy.

Synthetic turf

If you worry about embedded energy costs in petroleum-based products, skip this section, but if a perfect green sward is your thing, read on.

Pros of synthetic turfs include year-round colour, shade-tolerance, a mud-free edge to pools, great drainage, rain-permeability and no mowing. Cons can include high upfront cost, heat retention, limited warranties, sterility – synthetic turfs produce no oxygen and provide no habitat – and the need for maintenance.

Hard surfaces

For high traffic areas, timber decking or stone paving may be preferred. A major consideration, however, is the extra heat pavers retain on a hot day. Shading a paved area with a deciduous tree or carefully designed pergola can help. “I try to reduce the amount of hard surfaces I use,” says garden designer Phil Johnson. He stresses the importance of considering stormwater: “You need to think about using the run off; if you get in early in a project you can also collect the water from underneath by using permeable surfaces so it drains through.”

When nothing else will do:

Native lawns

Native grasses have low water use, provide great habitat for all forms of wildlife and can offer interesting colours (red leg grass), seed heads (wallaby, kangaroo, windmill and spear grasses) and textures (silky blue and plume grass).

However, most are grown from seed (the deep roots make turf production difficult) and develop slowly, so need patience, hand weeding and some watering until established; chemical broadleaf herbicides are not recommended for the first few months.

Also, because many are tussock forming or have only short rhizomes they are slower to regrow if damaged by heavy foot traffic. Two showpiece lawns have been sown at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, where they survive well but daily footy matches are not recommended.

At most, native lawns will only need mowing up to six times a year – usually to remove seed heads – and the blades should be kept high, around 25-40 mm. Weeping grass may benefit from an application of fertiliser if the leaves show some yellowing, but redgrass and wallaby grasses rarely need it. All will appreciate watering but have much lower needs than exotic species.

Microlaena stipoides (weeping grass) is the best native lawn grass,” says Phil Johnson. “Having said that, we need to educate people about what is an acceptable-looking lawn. I don’t like a scruffy look, so I choose Microlaena, but I can still see the beauty in an expanse of Danthonia (wallaby grass) with flower heads blowing in the wind.”


* Microlaena stipoides (weeping grass) will survive frosts and extended hot, dry periods, but may lose leaf if not watered during these times.

* Austrodanthonia (wallaby grass) is heat and drought tolerant, green all year round and hardier than weeping grass.

* Bothriochloa macra (red grass) is heat and drought tolerant. It is adapted to acid soils and low fertility soils.


Ko-Warra Native Grasses – www.nativegrasses.com.au; (03) 5480 9778

Native Seeds Pty Ltd – www.nativeseeds.com.au; (03) 9555 1722

Drought-tolerant Exotic Turf

If you want a lush green lawn and you can’t live with a native lawn then the following turfs have been developed for Australian conditions:

* Sir Walter buffalo is one of the best for Australian conditions and lifestyle, combining soft texture with resilience and low water use.

* Buffalo Sapphire is a warm-season grass. It reportedly retains good winter colour in most southern states but will become dormant in colder areas such as Canberra.

* Matilda is a semi dwarf buffalo that is recommended by NSW-based Bill’s Turf Supplies as one of the most drought-tolerant grasses. It tolerates full sun, part shade up to 80 per cent, temperatures below zero, salty soil and clay and rocky soils.


Bill’s Turf Supplies
02 8999 7684; www.billsturfsupplies.com.au
turf, including Matilda, empire and Durban

Buchanan Turf Website
1300 554 442; www.sirwalter.com.au
Sir Walter buffalo

1300 25 2000; www.ozbreed.com.au
sapphire, native species and strappy plants

Exotic lawn maintenance

“Anyone can have a lawn if they reduce it to a sustainable area and use whatever water is on site,” says Phil Johnson. Harvest as much water as possible, including stormwater and greywater. Wendy Clarke estimates 40,000 litres can sustain up to 40 square metres of lawn, based on an average rainfall of 650–700mm.

Preparing the soil for a lawn is also important. “Normally I avoid having too much sand in soil, but for lawns you need a fair bit to avoid the soil becoming too compacted,’’ Wendy says. “To make sure the soil can still hold enough water and nutrients, I always use Hydrocell water retaining foam and try to get as much organic matter into the soil as I can.”

Adding sand to soil will permanently improve its drainage. Gypsum dug into clay soils will improve friability and drainage by chemically binding the super-fine clay particles together to improve drainage.

Turf is best laid in spring; if warmer weather cannot be avoided, help it settle in by deep watering with Seasol or similar shock-reducing fertiliser, and regular watering.

Then there’s maintenance. “One of the most important aspects of having a lawn is how you mow it,” says Phil. “The easiest way to kill a lawn is to mow it so low that the roots burn and the soil dries out. Keep it long and lush and it can retain more water that way.”

The national website of the Savewater! Alliance, www.savewater.com.au, recommends using a slow-release fertiliser once a year and a liquid boost as needed.

Jacqui of all trades

Published in Outback Magazine, Dec/Jan 2010

SEE: http://www.outbackmag.com.au/stories/article-view?553


WHETHER you need a grave dug, tyre fixed, laundry done, or a spare part for your vehicle, the chances are, Rhyna Nicholls can help you.

With only seven permanent residents of Innamincka, they all have to be fairly self-sufficient, but Rhyna takes multiskilling to a new level, even by outback standards. The owner of Innaminka Earthmoving Pty Ltd, she runs the business with just one employee, mechanic Kim Townsend, a Tibooburra-born and bred man who can also turn his hand to fixing or operating pretty much anything.

So when the project to deliver geothermal energy to Innamincka kicked off in 2006, it was one of Rhyna’s diggers that turned the first sod.

By default, she is also the town undertaker.

Visitors to the town are most likely to meet her through her tyre-fixing service or Kim’s gift of bringing any thing mechanical back to life. A side business is the town Laundromat; self service cappuccinos available.

‘Multiskilling is a catchword nowadays, but in the bush we’ve been doing it since we selected the place, because we had to,’ Rhyna says.

Making me a coffee in her warehouse-sized open-plan home, she warms to the topic – how Australia is losing its ‘can do’ attitude and bush skills as the rural population declines.

‘My late husband probably had two years of schooling if that – he could barely read and write – but he was an outstanding operator of machinery and ran an outstanding company here in the basin. He carried all his jobs in his head.

‘And my father probably received 18 months of schooling, but ran a very successful fourth-generation property.

‘As a nation I think we’re in danger of losing our young warriors because they don’t learn those life skills.’

There’s no doubt Rhyna has those skills and is busy instilling them in her 15-year-old son, Sam. But while there’s an element of Amazon about Rhyna, it’s her strongly intuitive femininity that shines through. Before she sits to join me for a rare break from work, she performs a fascinating ritual with her youngest dog, a

Rhyna and Gem

blue heeler called Gem. Getting him to sit up on his haunches on a dining room chair, she pours him a cup of milk which he politely proceeds to lap from the tin mug, paws gently resting on the table.

‘If you treat them right, they’ll do anything for you,’ she comments. ‘Same as people, really.’

While strong and determined, the trim, nuggety woman has the gentle air of a horse whisperer about her; just as her sun-kissed hands are firm from manual work, but her neatly cut nails carry a hint of pale pink polish.

The property her father, Gordon Titmarsh ran – where Rhyna grew up – is Tandora Station, on the Mary River near Maryborough. She describes it as ‘harsh country’ in the salt water section of river, about five miles from its mouth, where the river is about a mile wide.

‘All coastal country is poor,’ she says. ‘We can do more with it now but it was difficult country then; heavily treed and heavily mosquitoed too.’

Rhyna was a few years younger than her older brother and sister and had independence thrust on her from an early age.

‘I think I got in the way of my mother needing to be out helping my father. I was left alone at home when mum went out for half a day to work – with a cattle dog to look after me – and, when I was older, I’d go out and work with them, then get sent home early to start the fire and start tea – I’d peel veggies, milk the cows, lock up the calves, feed the chooks and so on, so when dad got home after dark, the meal was already started.’

She remembers mustering long-legged Brahman cattle in heavily treed country where they could disappear into the scrub. In more recent photos it has been transformed to English-style parkland, with widely spaced, larger trees offering shade over vast tracts of lush, green grass.

‘My father was one of the first in the area to introduce Brahman stock. Before being bred with shorthorns, they were very leggy and when range fed they’d take off when they got a sniff of you; they’d run like brumbies.’

Her mother, now 92, still lives on the property, now run by Rhyna’s brother, Lyndsay Titmarsh.

‘Mum a very clever woman and think there was a certain amount of frustration in living in bush in poverty and working behind bullocks.

‘I think she would have preferred to teach – she was certainly pretty tough on us!,’ Rhyna reflects with a laugh. Rhyna did correspondence school to grade 3 then went away to school Maryborough. Although it was not that far away, the roads were poor roads and the family owned no vehicles, so she only came home in the holidays.

Sam now does the same; the 18-hour drive from his Brisbane school means he only comes home for the longer breaks. He starts work alongside her as soon as he’s back.

Rhyna is immensely proud of him – with good reason. He’s a keen worker, able and willing to help with whatever’s asked of him, and with enough common sense to act on his own initiative as well.

‘I tell Sam, never think of anything as boring,’ she says. ‘Even the most mundane things you can learn from. My banking skills have given me accuracy and focus and written word.’

Seeing her in her outback element, coping so easily with whatever Australia’s harsh climate and isolation can throw at her, it’s hard to imagine her behind the desk of a bank, but that’s where she started work, after leaving home at 14 and going to live with her sister in Mt Isa. That job was followed by a long stint with the Queensland Police, rising to the rank of senior sergeant.

Rhyna was at Ada Vale, Queensland, and her second husband, Ivor Nicholls, was working on the pipeline in Mt Margaret when they met.

‘We said we’d give it [Innamincka] seven years and we’ll see what we can do to build up the machinery, build this place and build the company up,’ she explains. ‘And in the seventh year he died.

‘It certainly changed my life. My idea of how I live life anyway. Life changes you; it’s such a shame you can’t put an old head on young shoulders.’

Ivor died of cancer and Rhyna considers it one of her greatest achievements that she nursed him at home right up until the end.

‘After he was operated on, we closed the business while I nursed him in Adelaide for five months, trying to run business from there. He was diagnosed as palliative in October and died in January 2005.

‘I nursed him here until he died – I’m very proud of that. We were very lucky in some regards because we were able to adjust and we knew what was coming – we had time to put a plan together.’

Staying at home was important for Ivor, who Rhyna said had never been in the city in his life until he went to Adelaide for treatment.

‘He was a very brave man – he was a bush man – but he didn’t want to go to hospital; he died in my arms. It was very special. He’s buried up there,’ she motions her head towards the red-stone cemetery. ‘I’ve got to get a headstone.’

While the business had been a partnership, it was Ivor who was the machinery expert, and his passing meant Rhyna had to re-think her future.

‘It took about two months to sort everything out and I camped down by the creek for about a month trying to think things out – I had to decide whether to stay or go, and I decided no, I can do this. And I chose three guys who I thought would be able to help me – two have since moved on and the third is Ivor, who’s still here.’

Rhyna dropped the truck and prime mover side of the business, redefined how she worked and what she did and she and Kim decided what they should cut out and a few new areas they could move into.

Some new machinery was bought and, as the nation stares down the global financial crisis, she feels she is in a ‘pretty firm position as a company’.

‘We can shut down here for quite a while and survive – we don’t have a whole load over overheads or borrowings. When we started 10-11 years ago we had $70 to our name and a huge tax bill – when we started here [Innamincka] there was no roof, no walls, nothing but open paddocks – there were just coals here where I’d cook for the crew we had,’ she says, pointing to a spot in the middle of the room.

Between them they built the workshop, adjoining home, and the company’s business – employing 46 staff at its peak, with a lot of work coming from the nearby Santos oil and gas sites.

‘He was a stone man; he taught me to work stone, and I’m a wood lady so I did all the wood work,’ she says, pointing to stunning timber bench tops made from boards recycled from Santos cast-offs.

‘We’ve always had the Santos contract, right from the start. Ivor wrote their environmental policy for them – most of their present policy is still 70-80% his.’
Caring for the environment comes naturally to most bush folk, she believes, although she admits some of her father’s early conservation work at Tandora Station went against the popular trends of the time and was regarded by some as ‘quackery’.

‘Country people know the soil, they understand the earth, and the water, and climate and plants. They have a deep affinity with the land and understand it and respect it.’

One process Ivor put in practice was scraping aside the top soil and seed before any earthworks began. This would then be replaced when the gas work or mining was done.

‘I’ve seen that method used on sand mines on Stradbroke Island, too, and where they had rehabilitated, it was like virgin bush.’

With her long plait of dark hair and trim figure, Rhyna looks at least 10 years younger than her 54 years, but she now is approaching another crossroads; Sam will leave school at the end of this year (2009) and will need to decide if he is interested in taking over the business.

‘I’ll give him a couple of years to decide if it’s for him or not,’ she says. ‘Innamincka’s a hard place to make a living, and it’s a hard life. It costs $50,000 a year to get power, so you’ve got to be a successful business just to survive the high costs.’

There are a couple of changes afoot that should make living and doing business in Innamincka easier – one is the Habaneros geothermal energy project, which will finally bringing power to the community for the first time, and another is the possibility of opening up more of the town for freehold purchase.

‘Right now we can only lease the land outside of the original town centre, which makes it hard to attract businesses and new residents.’

At 15, Sam can already handle virtually all the machinery in the earthmoving business, but should he decide the life is not for him, Rhyna says she will probably head back to the coast, and some land her brother manages for her

‘I still bucket water from the tanks and use generators for power, but that’s what I grew up with. Australians in the last World War were highly sought after because they knew how to look after themselves and convert things to their own use – people can’t work things out for themselves nowadays. They see country life and think it’s all deprivation.

‘You’re a long way from chemotherapy and x-ray machines, true, but we’re not really disadvantaged. When I was young, if my parents went out mustering, so did I – your parents are working to earn a living and you’re part of that. Now a child is born and mum goes to work, dad goes to work and the child goes to child care or whatever and they never mix. We don’t have that ability to survive – young people don’t have survival skills passed on to them.’

In the same way as Innamincka is adapting to meet the emerging future, Rhyna is using her traditional skills to forge a very modern life for herself and those around her. This inspiring woman leaves me with the feeling that it’s a skill combination that would benefit many others.

Burleigh Griffin’s modern view of housing

01 Jul, 2008 05:08 PM
MANSIONS that take up too much room on a block, pollution and affordable housing may sound like modern issues.
But a new book compiling the writings of architect Walter Burley Griffin reveals his interest in those topics many decades ago.

Much has been written about the American-born architect who had a major influence on adolescent Australia as it struggled to find its own identity in the early 20th century.

The solid tome, edited by Griffin’s grand-nephew Dustin Griffin, comprises 71 passages of the architect’s writings on a range of subjects.

Apart from designing the nation’s capital city, Canberra, Griffin and his equally creative wife Marion Mahoney designed towns, public buildings, individual homes and a number of residential estates.

In the north-west suburbs, Griffin’s work can be seen in the design of Essendon’s Incinerator in Holmes Road, created as a municipal rubbish disposal unit and now converted to a vibrant arts and cultural centre.

The layout of part of Avondale Heights was also done by Griffin, originally using similar ideas to those he followed in designing Eaglemont in Melbourne’s north-east.

However, the concept of shared neighbourhood gardens was never followed through and most of the open space has since been rezoned as residential, although only two have so far been developed (both for aged-care homes).

Griffin would have been horrified. In 1923, he gave a lecture in Melbourne in which he said: “Each year more and more forests are ring-barked, fields eroded and pest-infected, rivers befouled and dredged, factory-invaded, and slashed by railways.”

In Melbourne, his work can be seen at Newman College at Melbourne University, the Capitol Theatre – and a missed opportunity to develop a vision he had for the Jolimont rail lines, a plan that is back on the drawing board.

An early student of Frank Lloyd Wright and reader of Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy, Griffin believed strongly that buildings should harmonise with their environment and was keen to use materials and colours that blended with nature.

He was keen on affordable housing and on the idea of building homes with flat roofs that could be used for gardens. In 1921 he wrote: “It will be generally admitted that the attractiveness of metropolitan Melbourne lies not so much in its famous wide pavements or more or less smoky city architecture, as in its beautiful gardens, upon which visitors from other cities always remark, and in which they find a source of pleasure.”

The Writings of Walter Burley Griffin, 512 pages, published by Cambridge University Press Australia; rrp $199.
SEE: www.cambridge.edu.au/griffin

Basalt plain grasslands get highest protection


BY JANE CANAWAY 01 Jul, 2008 05:39 PM


NATIVE grasslands on Melbourne’s basalt plains – including those in Brimbank – have been given the highest possible protection under federal law, listing the ecosystem as critically endangered under the national Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Ecologists nominated the grasslands for inclusion at least three years ago and, finally, on June 21, it was listed – and rated at the highest of three levels – critically endangered.

Sunshine-based ecologist Simon Cropper said: “It’s a big thing because virtually every development west of Melbourne could trigger the EPBC.

“Many landowners don’t relate grasslands to native vegetation; mums and dads with rural blocks may not understand [the implications].

But “with 99.99 per cent of the basalt plains grasslands in their true form now gone,” Mr Cropper said he hoped the move would halt the decline.

In the advice to the minister listed on the department website, a block as small as 0.05ha – or 500 square metres – can be defined as grassland. Under the Act, any planned clearance will have to be referred to the Federal Government for approval. And, because there is no bilateral agreement between the state and federal governments, two separate applications must be made.

To add to the confusion, the Federal Government’s definition of what should be protected is likely to be different to that used by the Victorian Government, so land that might not qualify as remnant in Victoria might be protected under the Federal Act.

Landowners are warned not to clear any land without approval however – civil penalties of $550,000 can be levied against individuals, and up to $5.5 million for corporations, with criminal penalties of seven years’ jail and/or $46,200.

While offsets can be made to compensate for lost vegetation under state law, this is not offered under the EPBC ACT, which insists the damaged land is repaired.

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