Girragirra Green Living


This is an arial picture of the girragirra house and garden

Architect Tone Wheeler is a wizard. Tone and the team at Environa Studio responded boldly, both to the site and to our brief for a sustainable, small build in two pavilions – one for us and one for our guests. Yep, one just for you!
Local builder Bernie Horan and his team of excellent tradies turned Tone’s vision into reality. They delivered a striking, contemporary home designed to last a very long time based on a mantra of sustainability: minimal environmental impact, maximum comfort and low maintenance. Three very good things don’t you think?

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Of course design isn’t separate to sustainability, it’s the key to it. Permaculture design principles continue to inform all the key decisions around our building, garden and farm.
So what’s this permaculture business? Sound a bit 1970’s hippyish? Well not really.
Quoting Geoff Lawton: Permaculture is a design science. It’s a system that supplies all the needs of humanity – all the basic needs and the intricate needs – in a way that also benefits the environment. Bit hard to argue with that.

How does that translate into great architecture delivering a sustainable contemporary home? By Australian standards our climate is tough. It’s low rainfall country, hot in Summer and cold in Winter with Autumn and Spring being the magical months. So delivering year round comfort could be a challenge.

Warm house / Cool house

Solar passive design principles delivered a house that’s naturally warm in winter and cool in summer – a joy to live in all year around.
Passive heating:

Girragirra Floor

See that line on the floor? The living areas at Girragirra are flooded with the warming rays of the sun during the winter months. If you straddle the light and shaded areas of our concrete floors the difference in temperature is amazing. That’s solar passive design delivering a beautifully warm house – for free!
Briefly it works like this:
The Winter sun tracks east/ west quite low in the northern sky. So if you orientate your living areas with windows facing north, the sun will stream in through the glass in winter and warm the room. It will do an even better job of heating your house for free if you have built in some “thermal mass”, like our concrete floors and walls which absorb the heat and store it for later on when the sun goes down.
“But”, I hear you say, “wont that mean a hot house in Summer”? And the answer is nope, not at all, because in Summer the sun tracks much higher in the sky and doesn’t hit that northern glazing.

Girragirra Heating

This is a very simple explanation of the concept of solar passive heating and of course there’s a lot more to it if you want to get the most out of this age old principle.
Insulation, the type of windows you choose, mid season shading and so on all contribute to thermal comfort. Your Home – the Australian Government’s guide to environmentally sustainable homes is an absolute wealth of info on every aspect of sustainable design and we highly recommend it. In fact we keep a copy in the Retreat library so have a browse when you stay with us, or check it out online.
Passive cooling is another topic worth getting your head around and the Your Home guide is a great reference on this topic too. At Girragirra, cross flow ventilation, loads of insulation and double glazing deliver year ’round thermal comfort.
We’ve also designed in more subtle passive elements to keep us cool.The billabong to the front of the house cools and hydrates those hot dry northerlies as they blow toward us across the flood plain.

Anne's photo

The fish pond to the south of the guest courtyard does the same thing in summer, with shutters built in to close off the breeze in winter
Occasionally we do need to kick the evaporative airconditioner into gear during those super-hot 40+ bursts we get in summer. The passive design elements built into Girragirra, like thermal mass, mean we can maintain a very comfortable 26C despite the conventional wisdom that evaporative air conditioning can only deliver a 10C degree benefit
Solar hydronic hot water plus energy efficient lighting and white goods complete the low energy picture with a 10kw array supplying power in excess of our needs.

Collecting water:

Tone designed a “big lid” for Girragirra. We collect around 200,000L of pure rain water off the roof and store it in stainless steel tanks. In combination with water efficient fixtures and fittings, that’s proving to be more than enough to run both pavilions, making the house totally self sufficient for water.

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Air quality:

No I’m not talking about the quality of the clear fresh country air surrounding the house but the indoor air quality that we create with our choice of paints, glues, floor finishes, new furniture, insulation – the list goes on! That was a major consideration during the design /construction process.
Some of the products commonly used “off gas” some very nasty chemistry indeed -bad news for the new home owner and not great for the tradies working with them either. So we researched every product used in the build carefully and did our best to choose long lasting, non- toxic options. Low VOC paint and a natural oil to finish the concrete floors are two good examples here, both readily available and simple to use. I can say that with hindsight!

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Refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle was and remains the go here at Girragirra.
There were quite a few common building materials that we refused to use because of their toxic nature, short life span or other negative impact. And it wasn’t hard to find replacements for them with so many beautiful, sustainable, affordable materials available, right on our doorstep as it turns out.

Kim and Justin milling

You can be just plain lucky. Timber from an ancient River Red Gum found felled nearby gives the building great heart and also gave this magnificent old tree another life.
Talented local artisan Justin, brought his mill to the tree and with Kim as off sider milled the old beauty, then used the timber to fit out both houses with handcrafted joinery and furniture. Clever boy that Justin – creative, highly skilled, local. Quite the package really.

Australian ply and bamboo (OK, definitely not local but a good sustainable choice because it’s so fast growing and durable) make up the rest of the joinery.

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Cladding made with iron reused from and old factory nails another of the “R”s. Sitting nicely with the local built vernacular (a fancy pants way of saying it fits in with surrounding farm sheds built out of corro) and with the old nail holes loud and proud, Tone jokes it looks like a beautiful young house with a touch of acne!
Refusing to add an extra layer by covering an already beautiful, functional concrete floor or alternatively grinding it down to a polished surface saved us many dollars reducing demand on the Earth’s finite resource base and also reducing our energy budget. We oiled it instead and it’s lovely and weirdly soft underfoot. It’s one of the most commented on features of the house. We love that. 

long lunch

It’s a good thing to recycle and that recycled material needs a good home to go to, like Modwood – a product made out of recycled plastic milk bottles and sawdust which we used for our steps and decking. It’s maintenance free and long lived. What’s not to love?

And no, we don’t seek or receive payment for endorsements. We just call it as we see it.

Reusing beautiful old timbers from local wool sheds past their use by date gave us joy, the timbers a new life and the house character and a flavor of our recent past. We can still smell the sheep when it rains – it takes us back ………….

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And some more old timbers, this time from the railway, used as uprights for the massive old pergola that forms the axis of the garden. They bring with them the blood sweat and tears of the pioneer fettlers…. and of Hugh our young friend who installed them, sharpening his chainsaw every cut because of the embedded railway iron. Thanks Hugh, you are a legend!

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There were plenty of challenges – every one said there would be, a major flood for instance. But that didn’t stop Bernie Horan, the builder. What was that very important measurement Bern?



Tone, Bernie and his highly skilled team of local tradies delivered a fabulous building, one that will look after us, our guests and the generations to come. We are truly grateful and have been rewarded in many ways for keeping things local wherever we possibly could.
Even that mountain of packaging that’s so hard to avoid when building has a role to play in the future of Girragirra. We dug a deep pit and buried every scrap of cardboard and paper and timber, then covered it with soil. It has become a soak to water future shade trees rather than becoming land fill. If ever I go missing …..

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