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Australia Today “Green Acres”

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Building your own house. Growing your own vegetables. Watching your kids spend their afternoons in a tree house instead of in front of the television. Following a greener, more sustainable way of life is a dream for many of us. For the Fisher family it’s a dream come true.

Seven years ago graphic designer Anna Fisher and husband Christian, an architect, were living a typical urban lifestyle in one of Sydney’s most sought-after suburbs.

“We had a lovely, older style flat in Coogee, on the second floor,” say the couple, both 40. “But it was smallish and we were working long hours in the city and doing a lot of commuting and eating takeaway food.”

It took the arrival of daughter Mia, in 2002, to prompt a rethink of their lifestyle and their living space.

“Christian had always wanted to move back to the country – he grew up in Taree – but it wasn’t really till Mia came along that I wholeheartedly agreed,” says Anna. “I was at home, carrying a screaming baby, shopping bags and a pram up two narrow flights of stairs. We needed more space and less stress!”

Holidays spent in the idyllic country village of Bellingen, on the Mid North Coast of NSW, led to a six-month hunt for a property where they could build their own home. They wanted their house to have green features but, at the same time, they were on a tight budget – they were leaving their jobs in Sydney with only a little money.

They eventually bought 3.8 hectares of pasture and native forest for a steal, just before the last property boom. Their land tucked at the end of one of Bellingen’s most desirable streets where a lack of traffic means Mia can play safely on her bike with friends.

There’s a dairy farmer next door and the Fishers leave their gate open so his cows can come in for an extra feed in winter and keep the grass down in summer. The family can gaze over the rich, green country through their three-bedroom home’s abundant windows.

It took them a year to build the house. During that time they lived at Taree, where Christian’s mother still resides, and would take the three-hour drive back and forth to a caravan nearby.

“A lot of the labour was ours,” says Christian. “For example, we helped make 5,000 pressed earth bricks on the property. That reduced our costs.”

Pressed earth bricks are similar to mud bricks and have what designers call “thermal mass”. In other words, they absorb some of the heat that’s in the air on a hot day and release it slowly overnight when the temperature is cooler. The house also has lots of big windows to the north, making the most of the sun’s light and warmth, and only one tiny window on the western side, which protects the home from the intense heat of the late afternoon sun. There’s no air conditioning and ceiling-mounted fans are used only occasionally in summer –they’re not often needed.

When it came to the material for the floors, doors and window frames, recycled timber was out the question. “We simply couldn’t afford it.” Rather, the Fishers sourced mixed hardwoods – mainly Blackbutt – from the local mill and dressed it themselves to use for home’s timber framing. Spotted Gum was chosen for the floors.

Always with an eye on the budget, the couple used offcuts, as well as some wood they were given by a friend to make a handsome dining table and a broad sliding door. The stainless steel benches in the kitchen were sourced from a commercial kitchen company at a fraction of the cost of standard kitchen suppliers.

Clever decisions like these allowed the Fishers to build their home for around $200,000, not including the garden the pool.

Like many people on country properties, the Fishers aren’t connected to the town water supply. They rely on Bellingen’s high rainfall – 1517mm a year – to fill their two concrete water tanks – a 20,000 litre for the house and a 5,000 litre for the garden and pool.

Anna researched appliances, finding a dishwasher that used the least water and installing a three-star-rated showerhead in the bathroom to minimise water consumption. Other eco-friendly choices are a natural gas stove, Solahart solar panels to heat water and lined curtains for insulation.

The Fishers have been in residence for five years now and the Murraya and the lilly pilly they planted on most of the boundaries to give them shade and privacy have grown into bushy specimens.

“We also planted natives to attract birds. The first year living in the house we had lots of red-back spiders, but once the natives grew we didn’t have any,” says Christian.

There are passionfruit vines, mango, mandarin, grapefruit, lime and kaffir lime trees and a vegetable garden. Herbs such as chilli, oregano, basil, rosemary and chives – many of them a gift from Anna’s mum, Shirley – are dotted around the property.

“We were novice gardeners but now Mia will only eat lettuce from our garden – she doesn’t like the taste of the stuff from the supermarket – and both she and our son, Sam, 3, like to plant seedlings.”

Outdoor play is encouraged; there are limits on both television viewing and computer games, but Mia prefers riding her bike and playing in a neighbour’s tree house or on a trampoline. There is also the family dog – Leila, a border collie kelpie cross, to play with.

Around the house, other small touches reveal Anna and Christian’s commitment to sustainable living. They buy dry food goods in bulk and use Earth Choice cleaners for the kitchen and bathroom.

A handmade quilt by Anna’s mum adorns the main bed; a ladder rescued from the tip is used to access the loft space in Mia’s bedroom; and the natural soaps bought from the local market are used in the bathroom.

All of the used paper from the couple’s at-home office goes to the children’s drawing table and Anna recycles birthday and Christmas cards for collage and her own card designs. Comic pages from the newspaper and colourful catalogues are used for gift wrapping paper.

“Pumpkin Patch is great for girls’ wrapping paper!” says Anna.

Living in an eco-aware community helps the family’s effort to cut down on their impact on the planet.

“My neighbour, who has four girls, regularly brings down a big box of clothes,” says Anna. “One neighbour has chooks/eggs and potatoes, which I swap for herbs and chillies.”

Both Christian and Anna have also traded their professional skills (www.fisherdesign.com.au) for services such as massage and hairdressing.

“We’re not perfect,” says Anna. “For example, we have a plasma TV that was handed down to us by the family. But I think it’s just about doing as much as you can.”

Australia Today, July 2009 | Photos Michael Wee  | Words Helen Hawkes