Category Archives: Buildings

Water and Simple Living

The following us an updated version of an assignment submitted for my study in Writing the Zeitgeist at Curtin University.

Live simply so that others may simply live – Gandhi.

The other night, while watching the SBS program ’Go Back to Where You Came From’, I was struck by segment of the program about the woman in the Ethiopian UNHCR camp, who had to walk over one kilometre with containers to get her daily water supply. When she arrived at the water taps, with the film crew and show participants, there was no water. The camp had been in this location for over three years. In the background was a high, strong security fence, with rows of new four wheel drive vehicles and trucks for the UNHCR staff. Surely, after more than three years of existence, there would be a much better water supply, as well as better housing for the refugees.

This story segment which included all the tents, flapping in the desert wind, brought back to mind the quote from Gandhi. Where have we, as a species, gone wrong? Why do we have wars and conflicts? Is is just because of greed – of wanting more? By us wanting more, someone is going to have to miss out. Food supply experts have stated that there is enough food produced in the world to eliminate hunger, but that the problem is most of it is used for the production of livestock feed to produce meat.

One looming problem that mankind has to solve is the coming shortage of water. Peak oil is a problem already being widely discussed, but peak water is something that is being overlooked in many countries. It is estimated that by 2025, two out of three people will face water stress; that is, they will not have enough water for their daily need. An Australian example of this problem was experienced during the recent drought in the Murray-Darling Basin and the pressure on water supplies to Broken Hill, Adelaide and other towns in the basin. Water stress is also evident in places like Yemen, and in many other African countries. One of the problems with meat production is the amount of water that is required for each kilogram produced. With the growing world population, by 2050 experts have forecast that there will not be enough water to grow the animal feeds required .

So how much water do we consume each day, apart from what we drink from the tap? A 125ml glass of wine with dinner – 120l, a 250ml glass of orange juice – 170l, a hamburger – 2400l plus an egg which adds another 135l, the cotton t-shirt that I wore today – 4100l, and the shoes I’m wearing – 8000l, one sheet of the A4 paper that was used to print this essay – 10l, and between 16,000 to 100,000l per kilo of beef. Every country that exports food, is also exporting water .

I live a lifestyle that many people find hard to accept in the area where I have my home. I have no mains power, only solar with a backup diesel powered generator. All my water comes from either tanks collected from the buildings I built myself from local timber (well, I did buy new corrugated iron), or from run-off into a couple of dams. The dam water is used for toilet flushing and water the animals (chooks, dogs, macro-pods, and birds) orchard and plants around the house that provide nectar for the birds and insects, and something nice for us to look at, and a fire break of sorts. Our house is mostly constructed from mud bricks that we have made ourselves, with all the timber being cut by me from either the property or local native forests.

When we first moved here, we lived in a tent, and had to cart water. I can empathise with the refugees. It took a few years to get the shed built, the solar panels installed and tank attached because I was working full time. It was great to have 24×7 power again, as well as running hot and cold water. I put water into the house of my great aunt, who was born on January 1st 1900, in the late 1970’s. She had carried water into the house all of that time for washing clothes and dishes. She did have a flushing toilet and shower (hot water from a chip heater).

All of the doors, windows, shelving, kitchen cupboards and the like are recycled. I will admit to having a digital TV and a Blue-Ray player for entertainment. We did investigate installing a composting toilet, but after having used them in National Parks and roadside rest areas, decided that health and cleanliness was of greater importance. The water that does come out via a reed bed is used to water some trees and plants that provide shade and shelter, so I don’t consider the toilet to be a great water consumer.

I was raised in a family of six, with my paternal grandmother living with us as well. We had dams for the garden, but only a 15,000 gallon rainwater tank for the household and washing utensils in the dairy in a 25 inch rainfall area. As a result, the family was extremely careful in using the rainwater. We did run short on occasions. It still pains me to see taps dripping, water cisterns leaking, and lawns and gardens being irrigated. It also causes me angst to see farmers still using flood irrigation for low value crops and growing grass for cattle.

The future for the water in the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) is causing many problems for all people concerned: the people who live, and work there; politicians both federal and state; as well as those who depend on the water from it. The MDB is vitally important to the food production and export income of Australia, as it ’ generates 39% of … the agricultural income, 53% of Australia’s cereal production, 95% of the oranges, 54% of the apples, 28% of the cattle herd, 45% of the sheep herd, and 62% of pig herd’ . Only 4% of the rainfall in the basin is run-off for dams and rivers; the rest evaporates or drains into the ground. Over 35% of the runoff occurs from 12% of the basin area in catchments of the Murrumbidgee, Upper Murray, Goulburn, Broken and Lodden Rivers .

Professor Tim Lang introduced the concept of food miles in 1990, the aim of which was to ’highlight the hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production to consumers in a simple way, one which had objective reality but also connotations’. His article was important in raising awareness of the issues relating to where food is grown and the cost of transporting it to where it is consumed. A 2008 Choice report states that ’ a typical basket of groceries from the supermarket has “food miles” equivalent to two loops of the globe’ .

Another way, and it has been suggested a better way of analysing the true cost of food and our other requirements is via life-cycle analysis, which takes into account the inputs and outputs of energy involved in production, processing, packaging and transport of the food to the point of purchase, as well as air, water and waste pollution, and resource depletion.

We all need to be very conscious of our consumption patterns, choosing our foods very carefully. It’s very easy to buy the house labels at a low cost, when we all need to save money. Sometimes those foods are produced at a cost to the foreign countries farmers, who don’t have enough food or income for themselves, or they grow them in place of their own food for their own consumption. This is demonstrated by the clearing of Amazon rainforest to grow soy beans for export to Europe for cattle food and oil production, leaving the local people without food.

By growing our own foods as much as possible, even with a patio or balcony garden or small aquaponics system, and being aware of the water used to produce our foods, food miles and life cycle of the products, and by cooking and preserving our own foods, we can not only reduce our living costs, but also live more simply, and allow others in the world to simply live.

Mudbricks and Building

Why has earth-wall construction been so little used in past years? The answer is that as there is nothing to sell there are few to extol its merits. G.F. Middleton, Earth Wall Construction 1952.

Timbuktu Mosque made from mudbricks
Timbuktu Mosque made from mudbricks

For centuries, earth and water have been used for construction in Africa, Asia and the Americas. It is estimated that around 20% of all the buildings on the planet are build from earth. Earth is very little used in Australia. It is strong, durable and well suited to the Australian climate. It does have problems meeting the energy ratings as required for new buildings, but after having lived in mud brick homes and 5-star energy rated homes in cold climates, I know which one I prefer, as do many other people.

Earth walls are fireproof, cheap (requiring labour and minimal mechanical inputs), dry and hygienic. It exists at every building site, and many times is carted away. The walls are cool in summer and warm in winter, and white ants and insects (other than mud wasps, which collect pest insects anyway) don’t tunnel in the walls.

Muscle power and water are essential ingredients, along with the sun to dry them. The first buildings in Australia in Sydney were wattle (thin sticks) and daub (mud) mixed with straw. Many of the villages in Africa and South America are still built using this ancient method.

Today, most earth walls are built from rammed earth (pise) or unfired mudbricks (which I have used). Pise is made by putting damp soil into a movable framework and ramming it. It was introduced into Normandy by the Romans, and spread from there. It is still widely used in China and other Asian countries.

Mudbricks have been used for well over 8000 years to build shelters in hot, dry, arid

mudbrick making
Mudbrick mold showing some bricks just made

countries in the Middle East, Africa, China, Mexico and South America. Mud is placed into a bottomless mould to make blocks, which are then allowed to dry, and then stacked near where they are to be used.

When I started building, I had lots of time, not much muscle power, no mechanical power, some water and lots of dirt. I had helped my daughter made some mudbricks as well as putting them into walls. It is a bit hard on the back, and hands. We used an old bathtub for mixing. We would make a batch in the morning, mix and let soak all day, then make the bricks in the afternoon, and then make another mix, so that it would ready for putting out the following morning. This method gave

mudbricks drying, waitiug to be stacked
Mudbricks drying, waiting to be stacked

us 60 bricks or so per day. Doesn’t seem like many, but after 10 days, we had over 600, which was enough for the small cottage. I have used the same method here, sometimes doing 3 mixes in a day giving close to 100 bricks per day without much effort.

Slowly but surely the house walls are coming along. I put up 4 courses, then some building strapping for ensuring the wall is solid and fastened to the log poles holding the roof down, then another 4 courses. This is enough for the day, otherwise the mud mortar gets squeezed out by the weight of the bricks. I get to work in the shade most of the time, which suits my skin.

mudbricks stacked near wall ready to use
mudbricks stacked near wall ready to use

The house is not yet finished – a work in progress, but at current rate, will be airtight and warm for next winter, with about 1000 bricks still to make. Once the house is finished, we are planning on making a couple of 2 bedroom units and another 4 bedroom cottage for people to stay in. The idea is that they work 4-6 hours per day in order to pay for accommodation and their food from the aquaponics system.

mudbrick wall waiting for shaping of half-bricks
Mudbrick wall waiting for shaping of half-bricks

There are many people who for circumstances beyond their control, are unable to find somewhere to live that is affordable. Towns and cities are not good places for lots of people, and this is provide some alternative for a few people while they get their lives back together with the assistance of counselling, art therapy, and meditation.

mudbrick wall at eight courses high
Mudbrick wall at eight courses high