Builder Karen Palmer cites diverse influences when it comes to her approach to sustainable housing; from Modernist architect Le Corbusier to Australia’s proudest home owner, Darryl Kerrigan from the movie, The Castle.
Karen Palmer is living proof of the old adage about one door closing and another opening. Having completed engineering qualifications in the 1990s, she worked for a manufacturing company in a job she hated. To get away from that position she decided find a job, any job, and ended up working as a receptionist for a building company. From the first day she loved it. She found the challenges facing the building industry fascinating and decided to head back to college to get some qualifications in her new field. She started with drafting and design and kept going until 2004 when she was granted a builder’s licence.
Along the way, Karen learned the practicalities of designing for subdivisions and building conventionally, the processes of dealing with stormwater runoff, rainwater collection and passive solar design and bringing a project in on a profitable budget. “I am influenced by lots of designers and builders,” she says, “but particularly by Le Corbusier’s concept of the house as a machine for living. I began to understand that a house could respond to the local climate and the seasons, as well as providing Karen Palmer is living proof of the old adage about one door closing and another opening. Having completed engineering qualifications in the 1990s, she worked for a manufacturing company in a job she hated. To get away from that position she decided find a job, any job, and ended up working as a receptionist for a building company. From the first day she loved it. She found the challenges facing the building industry fascinating and decided to head back to college to get some qualifications in her new field. She started with drafting and design and kept going until 2004 when she was granted a builder’s licence.the practical necessities of shelter, just by using basic principles of design without any increase in cost necessary. A house could respond to its environment instead of just crashing through it.” Karen observes that there are a great many “social barriers” to building sustainably in the modern world. “For some reason, everyone is hooked on the concept of having a huge house,” she says. “When I was a child, it was normal to share a bedroom with your siblings, but only 20 years on, it’s now uncommon. Not to mention a bedroom for each of your cars. As far as I’m concerned, the key factor in building sustainably is keeping the building’s footprint to an absolute minimum.”
The opportunity to put this philosophy into practice came in 2006 when Karen and her psychologist husband, Matthew, bought a block of land in the Adelaide suburb of Darlington. They were lured by the location close to a transport hub, near bike paths linking with nearby beaches and a wine region and overlooking a river-gum-lined creek, which has been part of a regeneration project for almost 20 years. The block, however, was small (350 square metres) and steep, which meant there was only one possible way to site the building. “Apart from keeping the footprint to a minimum, my main aim was to provide a connection with the landscape,” Karen explains. “I achieved that by keeping the living space to 91 square metres and adding a 30-square-metre deck on the northern side of the house, with a carport and lock-up storage for our pushbikes underneath.” All the fundamentals of environmental sustainability were addressed with the timber frame covered in a combination of lowmaintenance corrugated Zincalume and fibre cement-sheet cladding, highly insulated and lined with reflective foil.
The concrete slab provides thermal mass to absorb heat during the day in winter and release it at night. It’s made with fly ash, a by-product of coal electricity generation, which reduces the embodied energy of the slab by 36 per cent. The sealant is a low-VOC (volatile organic compound) product that will last at least a decade and is waterproof and easy to recoat. The Colorbond butterfly roof is also insulated and painted off-white, the most reflective colour available. It’s pitched to allow maximum solar access from the north during winter and the ideal angle on the opposite side for positioning the solar hot water panels and 1kW photovoltaic system. Overhangs provide optimal shading in summer and good cross ventilation takes care of the rest of the cooling. The windows are in standard aluminium frames but their double glazing and reveal lining design minimise heat transfer. “Apart from fans we don’t have any artificial cooling or heating,” Karen explains. “Everyone knows about how hot it is in Adelaide, but the cold is often not mentioned. It frequently gets down to single-figure temperatures at night, but because of the passive solar efficiency of the house, it’s typically 10 to 12 degrees warmer inside. I still get caught out going out without a jumper because I assume that it’s as comfortable outside as it is inside the house.”
A 23,000-litre water tank takes care of about half the household’s water needs and is topped up with mains water. Water-efficient tapware and appliances keep usage to a minimum and there’s a hot-watersaver valve that directs cool water from the hot-water pipes to the vegie garden. Karen admits her wetland garden was a bit of an extravagance, but adds that its practical capacity to filter greywater would more than balance its cost. “The garden is a mix of natives, to integrate it into the landscape, and fruit and vegies,” Karen explains. “I’ve become very interested in permaculture and I often wish my grandparents were still around to advise me on the finer points because, of course, in days gone by, those principles were second nature.” Other features include recycled timber for the benchtops in the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom and massive cafe doors from a salvage yard connecting the deck to the living area.
Energy-efficient lighting and appliances, a passively vented pantry and fridge cavity, a front-loading washing machine, an induction cooktop and highly insulated oven complete the eco-friendly fit-out. Under the FirstRate energy rating system the house scored five stars with 33 points. “Our electricity consumption is very low,” Karen adds. “Our panels produced 1500kWH in the year to April and our electricity bills for that period totalled $162, including using 100 per cent GreenPower. We don’t have gas. As far as I’m concerned, affordability is essential to sustainable living and I think we’ve been very successful in that department. We built our house, with high-quality new appliances, finished floor, piered footings and retaining walls to account for the slope and soil, solar panels, rainwater tank and pump and a sustainably harvested hardwood deck with change remaining from $150,000. “The landscaping was extra, but I keep putting in more and more plants, so far more than 500, so it’s hard to keep track. More and more, I believe landscape is integral to the design. It creates our own microclimate, as well as beauty and food.” The Palmers have nicknamed the house ‘Brookside Castle’, a tongue-incheek reference to the Kerrigan family home in the hit comedy movie, w There is a serious side to the moniker, however, as Karen points out that there should be an element of sanctuary to every home. “It’s not just about shelter,” she says. “There should be a sense of comfort and security and belonging in the landscape in all houses. I think we have succeeded with Brookside Castle. When you come in and look out on the creek and the regenerating bushland with its ancient gums, combined with our light-filled, comfortable, open living spaces, there is a sense of sanctuary. It’s a good place to come home to.”