Michael Mobbs (left) and Bob Carr

7 October 2010 – Former NSW Premier Bob Carr was in fine form on Wednesday this week for the launch of Michael Mobbs’ new book Sustainable House, an update of his earlier publication that which has sold 40,000 copies.

Despite claiming jetlag from a visit to US, Mr Carr was upbeat and enthusiastic in his praise for the work of Mr Mobbs, catalogued in the book.

Mr Mobbs had turned a typical inner Sydney terrace into a sustainable house that was off the grid, off the mains water supply and which processed its own sewage at a time, 14 years ago, when such a concept was considered, at best, unusual.

Key to energy savings, Mr Mobbs had discovered, was the removal of an old refrigerator, Mr Carr said. [The book also explains that large quantities of energy can be saved by providing plenty of airflow around the fridge, including cutting a duct in the floor to allow cool air to circulate past the motor.]

Now 14,000 people have passed through the front door to inspect the house, but as Mr Carr pointed out the interest has not stopped at curiosity.

L to R: Chris Harris, Lesli Berger, Monica Barone

Peppered in the audience was ample evidence that the concept had sparked plenty of influence. Present were two TAFE teachers who use the house as a demonstration tool in their work; Monica Barone, chief executive officer of Sydney City Council, which is the local authority for the property and which Mr Mobbs said has become increasingly supportive; Greens Sydney City councillor Chris Harris, architect Peter Stronarch, a principal of Allen Jack & Cottier whose offices are nearby, and with which Mr Mobbs has collaborated on projects such as forums on how to cool city streets; Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly, who has written about his work; and Canberra residents Nick Mayo and Sarah Clayton who liked the house so much they built their own.

Yet another guest was developer Lesli Berger whose company Mr Mobbs, a former lawyer, advised for a sustainable office building in Double Bay.

Mr Carr recalled his encounter with Mr Berger and the great difficulty he had in obtaining approvals for sustainable features of the project such as water, energy and sewerage treatment works.

“Lesli Berger with Michael’s advice and assistance threw up a state of the art modern building, a sustainable building in Double Bay and I went down there…and came across the horror story… Sydney Water and Energy Australia had made it difficult because they couldn’t to believe there was someone who would not take their water and not plug into their power.”

“The whole idea was to take buildings off the grid,” he said. “And it was well intentioned and well managed government bureaucracies that can’t understand something as radical as this – [someone] saying I don’t want to take your product…”

Canberra’s sustainable house owners Nick Mayo and Sarah Clayton

Mr Mobbs’ house was a good lesson that could be applied to commercial buildings, Mr Carr said. But more needed to be done.

His own offices in a 60s era building in Bligh Street in the city, was a “monster” in its consumption of energy, pumping cold air into empty hallways on the week-end but not allowing individual offices to be airconditioned, when required.

Mr Carr said that those who doubted it was possible to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 were overlooking the impact that energy efficiency could have.

In his own acknowledgements, Mr Mobbs was modestly dismissive of the house that had inspired so many people.

“It’s superficial,” he said.

What was more significant was the potential that there will be food shortages in the future and he preferred to highlight the work he had pioneered in his front street with the help of many neighbours to grow food in the nature strips and compost organic waste in the local park.

Mr Mobbs said that a great side benefit of the street gardening was the “conversations” that it inspired, enriching community life.

See our excerpts from Sustainable House