My Permaculture Design: An Overview – Shelter

Today is an exciting day for me. I am officially the owner of my own patch of dirt in the Murray Mallee. Now things can begin, even though they probably won’t for a little while yet. I shall let my bank balance regain its health before I get stuck into it.

The question I get asked most about this project is “What are you actually going to do?” Fair question, I say. And I realise I haven’t really addressed it here on the blog. Now’s time.

To answer the question thoroughly I am going to follow author of “Changing Gears”, Greg Foyster’s, answer to Henry Thoreau’s list of necessaries of life. Thoreau listed: food, shelter, clothing and fuel. Foyster was more contemporary and pragmatic and his list comprises: shelter, community, food, work, clothing, technology, money, health, spirituality / environment. I will pay particular attention to food and shelter for they are particularly place-related. I’m also going to add one more thing to the list: transport. You may think, “You’re just moving to the country so why change all the other stuff?” The relocating bit is just part of it. With this must come crucial changes to other parts of my life–what I do for work and money, how I feed myself, what I do for entertainment, how I get around. That’s why this project is so experimental. I’m effectively scrubbing the canvas clean, apart from my ties to my business and, of course, relationships; and starting afresh.

I realized, as I started to write this post that it is going to be too long for one entry. For the next 10 days there will be a “necessity” each day. Starting with Shelter.


Due to its marvelous insulation and bush fire resistant qualities I am building a small straw bale house. When I say small, I mean small. A space roughly the size of two average size bedrooms will be my living area and kitchen, bedroom and office space. The kitchen will have ample bench space–I hate having a lack of bench space!,–a two-burner gas cooktop, a small sink which will empty into a reed bed grey water system, a 120L bar fridge, and loads of shelves underneath the benches and on the wall. The living room will feature a built in couch with over 1sq/m of storage space underneath, and will be deep enough to double as a single bed for guests. For heating there will be a wood combustion heater which can be used to cook on during winter. I may get a small 12V flat screen TV. The bedroom, which is separated from the other half of the house by a stud wall, will sport a built in double bed with more storage underneath (approximately 2sq/m) and will be separated from a study nook by a 1.2-metre tall limestone wall, built using local limestone. The study nook will feature a large desk, looking out over Zone 4*** to the east. There will be built in floor to ceiling bookshelves. Along the northern face of the building will be two large glass sliding doors. These open onto an outdoor entertainment area, paved with old red bricks. There will be a verandah structure off the northern side of the house which, during summer, will crawl with grape and passionfruit vines. The dwelling construction will be post and beam with straw bale infilling.

Further on, in Zone 1* will be a small raised garden bed, built out of local limestone, where I will grow commonly used herbs and vegetables such as cherry tomatoes and salad greens. To the side, and shaded from the hot afternoon summer sun, will be an outdoor kitchen–a large benchtop, BBQ and a cob pizza oven. Lots of seating will be incorporated into the structures. The sides of the small raised garden bed will be deep and sturdy, capable of hold several people (and wine glasses!)

The bathroom will be housed in an adjacent outbuilding and will contain a shower, using water heated with either a 12V instantaneous hot water service or a rocket stove, and composting toilet. It will either be load-bearing straw bale construction or stud frame with corrugated iron cladding.

South of the house and near the boundary will be a straw bale shed for storing tools, building materials and compact 12V washing machine. Initially, before the house is built, half of the shed will be sectioned off and used as a comfortable space to camp. It will have a mattress and small kitchen area. The shed construction will be load-bearing straw bale.

I understand that such a small, basic house wouldn’t appeal to everyone. It’s certainly different from what I am used to. However, I have stayed in many small spaces before and have some idea of what to expect. I have spent extended periods in backcountry huts, caravans, tents, hostels, units and apartments. And have learnt that to make these spaces comfortable, one needs to design the space with care and creativity and make it feel homely with clever little touches. Fortunately, straw bale lends itself to having a little fun. Glass bottle walls and borders, nooks and crannies and shelves and ledges can all be carved into the walls to make a personal mark, increase storage space and add interesting textures.

In case I find it too small and to increase the resellability should it come to that one day, the design will purposely allow other spaces to be added on at a later time. The stud wall down the middle of the house can be extended to the northern wall to make two separate rooms, each with its own glass sliding door. Then, perhaps, a larger living / kitchen space could be built to the north east, turning it into a spacious 2-bedroom pavilion-style home.

Electricity will be provided by a small 12V system for lights, laptop and phone charging, and the hot water service; and a small 24V system will be used for the fridge, power tool charger, speakers, and any conventional appliances that happen to find their way into the house. These systems will have enough battery backup for 48 hours. A small–and quiet–diesel generator provide further diversity should the batteries need recharging during long periods of overcast weather–thankfully, not something the Murray Mallee is known for.

The property currently has access to the town’s bore. This is delivered to the property via a gravity feed and conventional tap. The water is not potable–not for consumption. This water will be used on the gardens, for washing, and perhaps showering. Initially, two 5000L rainwater tanks will be installed, catching rainwater from the house, shed and outhouse roofs. This will be used for cooking and drinking purposes. All water will be used at least twice. It will flow into a reed bed grey water recycling system which will then gravity feed onto Zone 2** and 4***.


* Zone 1 – “The zone nearest to the house, the location for those elements in the system that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often, such as salad crops, herb plants, soft fruit like strawberries or raspberries, greenhouse and cold frames, propagation area, worm compost bin for kitchen waste, etc. Raised beds are often used in zone 1 in urban areas.”

On the Mallee Permie property, this area will encompass the space just outside of the house, and will feature a small raised garden bed full of plants that are used everyday. There may also be a worm farm so that kitchen scraps can easily be recycled without having to trundle out to the chickens or larger compost bays.

** Zone 2 – “This area is used for siting perennial plants that require less frequent maintenance, such as occasional weed control or pruning, including currant bushes and orchards, pumpkins, sweet potato, etc. This would also be a good place for beehives, larger scale composting bins, and so on.”

On the Mallee Permie property, this will be where the main kitchen garden is situated, and the fruit and nut orchard. Grey water will be used to irrigate fruit and nut trees.

*** Zone 4 – “A semi-wild area. This zone is mainly used for forage and collecting wild food as well as production of timber for construction or firewood.”

On the Mallee Permie property, this be the whole of the second 1/4 acre block. Currently, the block is thick with native vegetation, at least 85% coverage. Some of this zone will be established as a native ‘bush tucker’ food forest–the native scrub will be interplanted with local edible species, such as conkerberry (Carissa spinarum), bush banana (Marsdenia australis). This area may receive some irrigation from the grey water recycling system but will largely fend for itself.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, Community.

3 thoughts on “My Permaculture Design: An Overview – Shelter

  1. Pingback: My Permaculture Design: An Overview – Community | Permaculture in the Mallee

  2. Pingback: My Permaculture Design: An Overview – Food | Permaculture in the Mallee

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