Shelter: The Gentle Art of Living EDITED




Col James


     The sanest approach to acquiring 'family' shelter these days is to adopt or adapt existing or potential human habitation. To breathe life into deserted buildings and repair damaged structures is preferable to alienating more and more natural land. It's faster and cheaper usually and helps conserve scarce building materials, apart from recycling existing stock. New inhabitants in old dwellings inherit historic 'vibes' and tend to recapture the forgotten but famous Australian creative pioneering instinct for adaptability. Human beings have proven abilities to adjust to widely ranging environmental conditions which belies the arrogant architectural view of a tailor-made home. The time has surely come for consolidation of the National Estate, to repair the damage done to rural land, arrest the spread of isolated nuclear-family suburban deserts and squeeze some life into part-time cities.

     The Dutch architect/poet Aldo van Eijck conceived the city as a large house and the house as a small city. What he meant was that the city has its bedrooms (hotels), its dining rooms (restaurants) and its living rooms (theatres, universities, concert halls and amusement parks) and that in the yin-yan convention the house has its hotel, restaurant, library, art gallery, streets, squares and parks. To further this notion a little, most buildings could be a home. Even the most prestigious office building could be humanised with people actually sleeping, living and working in plush, twenty-four hour conditioned comfort. Imagine the convenience, the efficient use of space and services and the eventual busting of the work-live-play barriers. This would not be a new situation of course but merely a revival of the decentralisation of work to home, appliest in reverse.

     That life should be an art-form in its every aspect is the forgotten goal in the consumer race. The blind pursuit and acquisition of more possessions, bigger and better houses, leaves precious little time to enjoy them. How simple by contrast to adopt an old building with friends and other families, start sharing and lead a self-fulfilling life. The range of dwelling opportunities capable of adaptation is broad; old houses, factories, sheds, dairies, caves. trees, watertanks, windmills, boats, underground and a Diogenes-style barrel. The New Zealand musical group, Blerta, live regally in a bus, some Hong Kong Chinese live in beautiful cliff-hanging packing cases. Drop City (United States) was constructed of used car bodies and another American family lives effectively in a house built from second- hand windows.

     The necessary ingredient of all rock bottom housing ideas is personal involvement and plenty of human energy. It is then contrary to gentle art forms to pay specialists to do all the work. Involvement with home is understanding, attachment and education for ability to maintain and change the dwelling as surely as the inhabitants change.



     If a building has to be built or an existing one extended or repaired or if a burnt out fireplace is to grow into a home, treat the problem like a resourceful meal. The macrobiotic ideal of using materials which are alive to the micro-region (was it thirty kilometres radius?) makes sense in many aspects. A building using indigenous. products should not only be cheaper by saving purchase and transport costs but also should be a guarantee of compatability with the local landscape and surrounding. For example, a rammed, earth* and hardwood framed house with eucalyptus shingles would integrate with the North Coast in land bush more invisibly than our universal brick and tile bungalow. More direct human energy used, to be sure, but that's the satisfaction, the attachment, the life style and the substitute for large amounts of folding money and manufacturing energy. Rural resources are varied and hard won when compared to cities where the really economical 'natural' resources are waste products. Identification and collection of waste requires a tuned-up scavenging instinct and constant patrols around industrial areas, building sites, rubbish dumps and affluent municipal council clean-up campaigns. It is a revelation to observe the resources that are discarded by contemporary urban society and a satisfying creative act to recycle this waste and adapt it to useful purposes.

     The Australian Aborigine lived almost without trace in this continent for many thousands of years before visiting Europeans insisted on taming the wild, natural country. Contrary to popular belief not all Aborigines were tribal transients adapting their shelters to locale. There is evidence on the west coast of Tasmania, for instance, of permanent 'macrobiotic' tribal domiciles. These forty foot diameter dome-shaped dwellings comfortably protected the inhabitants from harsh climate conditions.

     Early pioneering homes exhibited the same characteristics of natural resource usage and have useful application to resourceful living today with freedom from the mortgage shackles. Adzed timber slab construction, wattle and daub, stone, split cedar stakes, served the pioneers' needs through to sun dried bricks and the four-gallon kerosene tin building, depending upon circumstances.

     Today's application not only includes tried past techniques but can include a vast range of technological feats from ferro-cement domes, orgone accumulator pyramids, through free-form inflatibles, web-like wire structures, to recent experiments in frozen air enclosure and growing organic building. Total environmental control denying the need for any building is now also possible.

     Scheming up the hand-built do-it-yourself home has its growth roots in the site. One thoroughly commendable way to plan such a dwelling is to let it happen from a modest beginning, like a tent and a camp fire. Only by living on a site for a lengthy period can the purposeful builder get a true feel of the ground and climate over seasons. Only there can the liver witness the sun changing view before framing it, experience the breeze before admitting it and channel the water before using it. There time

can eradicate false preconceptions of buildings and truly dictate the form and growth of a sensible shelter. Only then can the site and shelter and all living things achieve a state of harmony where paths and 'places to stay' organise themselves through constancy of one. A good building will look like it has always been there, was never really 'designed' in the first place.


* G.F. Middleton, Build Your House of Earth (Compendium, Melbourne, 1975). Also the Australian Building Research Station, Delhi Road, North Ryde, 2113, publishes informative booklets on building with earth.


Energy Systems

     Home as a total concept provides for all of man's physical needs. Going far beyond the contemporary reality of containerising his exclusive possessions, home can now provide shelter, comfort, sustenance, sensory stimulation, recreation and a realm for sharing resources. What is significant also is that this is possible without playing into the usual bureaucratic utility services. Growing environmental awareness and concern for dwindling resources, particularly fossil fuels, has revived some old-fashioned systems and promoted some new low key technology. Australia, particularly, has pioneered solar energy research, notably in heat absorbers for hot water,1 and developed effective electricity generators using the familiar outback wind-mills. Useful human waste converters to fertiliser and methane generators have been developed in Sweden and the NASA space research fall out includes solar charged battery cells and water recycling systems to instance a few opportunities to take control of one's own life style. Mainland Chinese have some interesting supplementary uses for the popular and sensible bicycle. Home (commune) movies with sound powered by a tandem bike and pumps and lathes powered by the same source, assist in making the life style more autonomous.

     Rain water collection is familiar to most rural communities, but atomised spray to reduce consumption2 and recycling waste water through filters and solar stills are not commonplace. Space heating and cooling using nature's own powerhouse requires the correct orientation of a glass wall to the sun backing it with a heat bank wall and ducting hot air to the living spaces or adjusting sets of louvre s to suck hot air out of the same spaces.3

     One exciting prospect for the use of methane generators is that they work best with plenty of people and could be communal catalysts. Ironic prospect that what is usually flushed out of sight together with the kitchen garbage could bring people together and mutually provide free cooking fuel. It is sad but infuriating that so much energy and so many resources are wasted in reticulating sewerage to pollute waterways and in incinerating community garbage to pollute the atmosphere.

     Plant life has been rarely exploited here to assist the environmental dwelling. Deciduous vines on cave trellises can shade windows in summer and admit warming winter sun to house interiors. Window sill wheat crops help the oxygen production and help cleanse contaminated air. Intensive planting to simulate rain forest conditions is claimed to produce high concentrations of negatively ionised air particles which counter lethargy in human beings. The same condition is said to be experienced close to waterfalls and surf. Recently Japanese manufacturers have introduced negative ionisers to air-conditioning systems supposed to invigorate the workers and incidentally help asthmatics. What with Muzak thrown in, the office workers might be forgiven for thinking that they are totally out of control.


1 Solar Water Heaters, Circular Number 2, CISRO, Division of Mechanical Engineering, P.O. Box 26, Highett 3190.

2 Gerald Smith, Economics of Water Collection and Waste Recycling, University of Cambridge, Department of Architecture, Technical Research Division, 1 Scroope Terrace, Cambridge CB2 IPX, England.

3 H.L. Chapman, A Rock Pile Thermal Storage Heating and Cooling System, Publication No. P. 149, CISRO, Division of Mechanical Engineering.

4 'Gas Power,' Earth Garden, No. 8, pp. 44-51 (P.O. Box 111, Balmain, 2041); Bell, Boulter, Dunlop and Keller, Fuel of the Future (Andrew Singer, The Mill Cottage, Bottisham, Cambridgeshire); Methane Digesters for Fuel Gas and Fertiliser, (New Alchemy Institute (West), Box 326 Pescadero, CA 94060, U.S.A.).



     Australians are amongst the highest space users in the world. On average they occupy nearly half as much again as Europeans and three times more than the extended Chinese families. It is held by British analysts that this upward trend for more

enclosed space per person has been due almost solely to the need to accommodate more and more possessions, notably furniture, furnishings and gadgets. The commonly held belief is that there is a correlation between greater space and quality of

living. In other words the bigger the home, the higher the living standard. The isolation and utter selfishness of the Australian suburbanite is testament to this standard. Goaded on by the National Goal of home ownership freely interpreted as an inspiration towards the lordly castle overseering the estate, the nuclear family has been blind to the lost potential for active communal and community existence. There seems to be a number of ways to reverse this extravagant trend and as a bonus reduce the cost of building and living. One obvious solution is to build smaller homes and reduce the possessions (give them to the needy). Another is to pile more people into the same size houses, and yet another is to share partly used facilities with other dwellings; that is, don't build a laundry or garage or swimming pool but combine with others to share common usage. Is it so intolerable to confront other people, other than blood relations, and share a little living and be neighbourly? Having a hard, cold look at possessions and the space they occupy introduces a handy, but often maligned , notion of multi-purpose usage. Broadly this encompasses the use and adaption over daily time of space and equipment for their most efficient use. The exclusive bedroom, for example, serves its purpose for sleeping and dressing, storage of clothes and personal items for about ten hours out of twenty-four, mostly in oblivion. The so-called living room is rarely lived in now that project builders have sold the idea of a family room. All of these functions, plus dining, could be combined and reduced into an active multi-purpose communal room with private sleeping alcoves, thus sharing circulation space and opening up new potential for living relationships, such as legitimising sleeping in front of the fire and eating in bed for starters. 

     The old night-and-day divan, extends the use and conserves space. One good big table or table grouping can serve for dining and also craft, study, container, equipment base, or even a stage or vertical stacked cupboard. Clothing and linen storage make excellent sound insulation and hanging equipment from ceiling provides good accessibility and releases floor space. Lots of hands make less work and less space takes less care and makes more freedom to live fruitfully.



(Mies van de Rohe)

I believe that a really good home evolves over decades it's best to concentrate on a minimum flexible job which takes account of participation bover time by the occupants. As the I Ching said 'THINK SMALL'.


[photo caption: The eco-house at Sydney University will operate independently of all centralised services such as mains electricity, water, gas and sewage.]

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