20 January 2014 – Sue Turner is a property developer with a difference.
In 10 years Sue transformed a “scruffy flat paddock” with an existing subdivision into a thriving community of eight eco-friendly houses with double glazed windows, fans, solar panels, water tanks, beautifully landscaped native gardens that provide privacy and a communal area for vegetables and chooks.
Sue has documented the struggles and achievements of that decade in a book, The Munro Court Story, co-written with Sally Berridge, which serves as an example and an inspiration to anyone interested in low environmental impact housing developments.
When I visit Sue at one of the eight houses at Munro Court in Castlemaine in central Victoria, she tells me the ambitious project began as a “response to all these huge red brick houses with their black roofs, which somehow builders cannot stop building”.
Munro Court is a housing development, but lose your preconceptions about what that means. The houses are small, flat roofed, north facing. They are situated to make the best use of the sun and are surrounded not by fences and lawns but by low maintenance, water wise gardens.
Sue describes the houses as “having good manners to each other”, in that while they are close together, windows look to gardens, not into other houses. I’m impressed with the amount of natural light inside, even on a dull day. Sue says electricity bills are low.
But getting here was an occasionally bumpy ride.
While banks were happy to lend money to “real” property developers, they weren’t prepared to back Sue’s modest plan to sell each house as it was completed to finance the building of the next one. Although Sue and her partner Don Wild had sufficient assets, the fact that they were essentially retired didn’t fit with the banks’ loan formulas.
Eventually Sue found an “asset lender” that would finance the project, albeit at a higher rate of interest than a bank loan.
Sue teamed up with “absolutely fantastic” house designers and landscapers, Castlemaine based Lifethouse Designs, and Eltham based Sam Cox Landscape, who understood what she was trying to achieve and who stayed with the project from start to finish. Finding builders who “got it” and would stay the course was harder. In the end four different builders constructed the eight houses.
Then, when the first house was complete… it didn’t sell.
Sue wondered if she had misjudged the market. She had thought there was a big group of people out there whose children had left home and who were looking to move into smaller, energy efficient houses. Now it seemed to her that while Australians liked the idea of downsizing to a small place, when it came to the crunch “they really do want the spare room for the grandchildren”.
Eventually the first house sold, as did the rest. After the sale of the sixth house a bank decided Sue had enough runs on the board and gave her a loan to build the last two.
Establishing plants during the “millennium drought” required perseverance, but in recent wet years the gardens have taken off.Now they look brilliant.
A canopy of green grape vines shades the northern side of each house during the warmer months. In the winter, when the vine leaves have fallen, the sun shines through. Carports and sheds, situated on the west, protect the houses from the worst of the summer sun.
While Munro Court is no hippie commune – the houses are all completely separate from each other and retaining privacy is a key design principle – there are shared vegetable gardens and a chook house.
Gardening is left to the keen gardeners, but “we do have an official roster for the chooks – we take it in turns… we share the cost of feed and the eggs are religiously distributed around to each house.”
Sue says the most satisfying thing for her about Munro Court is the lived proof the houses do what they were designed to do. “They are cheap to run, well-designed and full of light,” she says. “These houses work.”
She says the hardest thing “was to stick to the vision… subtle houses, sinking gently into their gardens”.
Clearly Sue would love the project to become a model for other eco-conscious housing developers.
So it must pain her to see the housing estate emerging across the creek from Munro Court.
Big brick houses with heat-absorbing black roofs are plonked on blocks of land with no consideration to where the sun rises and sets throughout the year.
For the vast majority of new housing developments in Australia, quantity trumps quality. The aim is to “open up” land, not work with it.
Munro Court shows another approach is possible. The question is, will it inspire a new wave of environmentally-conscious property developers, or will it remain an exception to the rule?
The Munro Court Story is available from www.turningwild.com.au
Josh Meadows is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s media adviser. An abridged version of this piece appears in the January 2014 edition of ACF’s magazine Habitat.