I guess I should introduce myself. I am 31, living in Melbourne but regularly get itchy feet and feel the need to travel across Australia or overseas. I’ve been lucky enough to have been travelling across the seas for one reason or another since I was 5 and, as such, feeling connected to the big world out there is part of who I am and how I see myself.
In 2006 I was travelling in Europe, the UK and the Middle East. I had finished my undergraduate degree majoring in Environmental History, worked briefly as a research historian and then followed my heart, and some friends, to the Middle East and Europe. On my travels I was introduced to a whole new world of living and adventuring which really encompassed the free spirited 21st century Gen X’er from backgrounds such as mine; privileged, open, engaged and curious as to what other forms of Life there is out there. By this I’m not referring to aliens or psychotropic adventures (though I’ve definitely found myself having many a late night conversation darting across these spheres) but really what engaged me was the general disinterest in living the pre-determined pre-fab 9-5 lifestyle that most of our compatriots, family members and fellow high school friends were falling into. I think it’s my nature also to be reluctant to join in the masses, but I found myself surrounded by people also looking to live slightly differently. Cue Earthships.
Whilst I was living in Brighton England, a girl whose couch I’d been regularly surfing invited me to come out to see the Earthship being built in Stamner Park. This project, though I’ve never really found out much more about it, was being built amidst a larger public park zone not far out of the city of Brighton in a newly founded community gardens space and was scheduled to be their education and general information hub area. Hence as far as I was aware at the time the earthship didn’t need to be completely self sufficient for a family as no one was meant to be living there but it had a shower, grey water planters, water collection etc. From memory I stayed a few days loitering around, did some plastering and then went back to my dodgy bar maid job to eek out an existence.
Chrissi @ Stamner Park, Brighton 2006
Coming home and feeling at a loss with my history degree I began studying a Masters in Environmental Planning in Melbourne. Through this course I could really begin to explore some of the issues engaging society and the environment and look at urban design solutions and policy outcomes for working in the environmental field. At this stage I was still unsure of working in this area but generally felt at home with the discussions and people I was engaging with, learning about urban agriculture, cultural heritage, environmental theory, policy and planning, green buildings, energy policy and community development, engagement and advocacy with sustainability.
When I graduated I surprisingly found myself a town planner. What I began to realise when I worked in the industry was working within the constraints and painful bureaucratic processes that engulf the planning system in Victoria is horrific and what best practice policy and theory had been taught at university was steadily and doggedly being ignored in the industry. A diligent and focused building and development industry remains in control of the way we are building our cities. Sadly, we are stuck with the Victorian planning scheme and a bunch of eagle-eyed developers out to get ahead and fight for whoever pays them to achieve their end goal. In my last semester I was able to write my main assignment on Earthships, tying their function and specific design into post-bushfire and disaster mitigation planning.
Earlier that year I had gone to see Michael Reynolds speak for the first time at Federation Sq as part of a RMIT Design conference. Mike, being Mike, was by far the most outrageous, irreverent and generally engaging speaker on a panel dominated by strategic planning geeks. No wonder he’s attracted such a cult following. But it was at this talk that I realized there might be a niche for me in Australia. Here I was, about to graduate from my planning degree, already working for a private consultant, hearing tales of woe by Yarra Ranges back-to-the-landers crying to Mike to help them get their earthship plans through a stubborn council. Mike, as usual, replies that he’s spent 4 years of his life fighting the system and came out of the experience frustrated and only too relieved to not have to fight that fight again for he now has his 2 acres of ‘sustainable building test zone’ in New Mexico where he can continue to do things the way he likes to. But for the rest of us the fight is just starting.
2 years ago I noticed a group had started (on the wonders that is facebook) calling for people to come to the first Earthship meetings at CERES Environment Park in Melbourne. For those of you that are yet to be familiar with CERES, the incredible slice of heaven that it is in the center of Melbourne, you should definitely check it out as it could be a model for similar environmentally focused community hubs and education spaces which we should be seeing in every community. CERES has been running for exactly 30 years this year and has developed into quite a broad-ranging and open organization dedicated to supporting environmental initiatives, auspice community groups and foster a range of projects and events within the community with a vision for shared engagement and education. Of course the Earthship Australia group would begin there.
After a month or two months of regular Wednesday night meetings it became apparent that there was indeed a growing interest in earthship and off-grid buildings in Melbourne and in Australia, and more acutely, a need to address housing problems in Indigenous Australia which was the motivation for more than one of the founding members. I participated in the group and offered my services as a town planner for any planning application and general planning information but I knew that I needed to get a bit more experience and understanding in the business first before I could really set myself up.
I was after all just a hippy with a history degree.
CERES Environment Park, Brunswick, Victoria.
Chookship Plan for CERES Park
In 2010 I was lucky enough to be able to travel again for a year but this time to India and Nepal. I did manage to find an earthship being built - way up in the mountains of Kodai Kanal in Tamil Nadu by Alex, a member of the Brighton earthship group who’d made his way to India and had spent 2 years building his own in a really remote spot. I stayed for 2 weeks and tried to learn as much as I could from Alex of his experiences in India and England, practical tips and staging advice (beware paying local tradies in whisky).
Alex and his earthship, Tamil Nadu, March 2010
I’d left the Melbourne group at a real transition stage. There was a lot of interest but also a lot of chefs and it was difficult to discern who was interested in being involved for the long haul, who had ideas for just themselves and who was genuinely interested in developing a community organization devoted to developing and networking earthship design and building in Australia. My motivation in joining the group had also been to see what was out there already in Australia. Who was building and where? What had their obstacles been? What information could we share to help others going down the same road? It was also necessary to begin logging all those who came and their skills and interests. But as in every organization, the initial period was difficult and everyone was just learning about how to interact with each other, what everyone’s strengths were and how we should move forward considering most of us had limited skills and just a keen interest.
When I returned late in 2010 the Melbourne group had changed significantly. There was a group that had gone and built a tyre and mud structure at Rainbow Serpent Festival in Victoria as a workshop space and as a ‘let’s get started and do stuff’ project. Some of the major members had drifted away to go and settle their family in warmer climes, and a lot of the interest had dropped off because there was nothing tangible going on. Nathaniel had started building a tyre retaining wall at CERES as a manageable project we could do without getting a building permit and have people come and make contact on a monthly, if not weekly basis, to communicate and share knowledge, connections and information about earth building in general. A fair bit of interest was generated in February 2011 when mike came back to Australia and did a series of talks and workshops around Melbourne as part of the Steiner organization and also through CERES where a workshop was held.
This project (the retainaing wall.. nearly finsihed) has been going on for close to 2 years and it boggles me that it’s all we’ve really accomplished in that time. We’ve been planning a chookship to be built at CERES for over a year now and have yet to really engage with Council about the possible restrictions. Through a lengthy design consultation and discussion of how we would move forward, a 48sqm Ferro cement dome was decided upon but is still slow in being realized. It was through this frustration that I decided I really had to go to the home of Earthships and learn for myself what I would need to begin talking to regulators, engineers, builders and planners for staging builds here in Australia.
So, in 2011 I was able to go and participate in the first Earthship Academy in Taos, New Mexico, a story I feel that deserves it’s own page and for that I’ll wait until round 2.
Me @ CERES 2011