For the school fence Dugald Jellie is building at Melbourne’s Elsternwick Primary, he’s using “old Ernie’s” nails.

Ernie is a neighbour who recently moved to a nursing home and whose wife couldn’t bear to throw out the collections of nails from his shed when she readied the house for auction.

Jellie, who in a previous incarnation was a journalist for the SMH and The Age, but now has a small business building environmentally friendly projects, mostly at schools, says: “Ernie kept everything. He’s 88, of a generation that knew hard times, want, need, thrift.

“One of the things he kept was nails. Boxes, tins, jars of them, some bent, others rusty and used, every nail respected for its possibilities. I used a good handful today…. His conservation has now touched school children for many years to come.”

Anyone else who has things that need “respecting and honouring, you know how to find me”, says Jellie in a social media post.

Go to a school where Jellie has been working, and you might find mint growing in a brick box at the base of the drinking fountain (kids can put it in their water bottles or take some home for their parents daiquiris, he says, or even just enjoy the aroma as they brush past) or bricks turned so that the “frog” (the indentation where the mortar goes) glitters in the sun, creating a tiny drinking fountain or bird bath.

As well, the brickmakers’ stamp is showing. Glen Iris or Fritsch Holzer, the point being to display a social history of Melbourne.

The kids can look up, for example, Auburn brickworks, and work out perhaps that the brick was made in the late 1800s and “stayed in a house until it was decommissioned, then travelled from Auburn to a house in say Balaclava, to their kindergarten.”

Kids who know about where things are made will value them and besides, will learn about numbers and letters with these basic building blocks.

Despite “fancying myself as a good writer”, Jellie has given up on mainstream journalism. Funding has dried up, he said.

But while broader social media and the digital age has killed his kind of journalism, social media has opened up possibilities for getting recycled materials and keeping costs down for his “place making” at primary schools through mostly donated materials. 

In Armadale, where he frequently works, “everyone is renovating” and there are some really good materials, recently some battens and red gum posts from people who would otherwise have had to pay to get them removed.

Sometimes subterfuge is called for

Sometimes, too, there’s subterfuge: he recently snuck into a demolition site to “rescue” a trailer-load of roof timbers. Almost all were Oregon (Douglas fir), rafters and collar ties, pulled from the old Commonwealth bank building in High Street, Armadale.

“Usually I seek permission, but I’m at a job site all next week and blink, all these materials will be gone, taken away in a skip, dumped as landfill… This timber, milled in North America, shipped here, straight and dry and true, can be reused in other roofing structures.

“The back of the bank has been knocked over. Apartments will go up. If I don’t save it, nobody else will. The key is finding a second use for it, and storing it in the meantime. 

“And these new developments, I often look in their skips, and pull things out, and am angered by the waste. There is so often no care, no consideration. Nobody sees it.

“What l’ve done is maybe law-breaking… but parts of an old bank will hopefully now go in local schools and kindergartens, telling another story of use, and re-adaption.”

The lifestyle works because he and his partner, an academic and a careerist, decided she’d be breadwinner and he’d be the stay at home dad for their two children, working only school hours. 

Word of mouth gets new clients and he says he’s earned more in this last year than in his last years of writing. But Jellie says he does use his writing skills to for a blog documenting and acknowledging where the materials come from, providing good publicity for those who donate, as well as engaging schoolchildren through story-telling about the projects.

Social media has worked for people like him, and craftspeople, who now have a forum to display their wares.

In a way, Jellie is following his heart, his first inclination, in this career reincarnation.

Raw materials, too often lost to landfill

As a young man, he studied but did not finish architecture at university, worked as a model maker for architect Greg Burgess and then for builder Jeffrey Broadfield, working with him and architect Rick Leplastrier. They taught him much of what he knows, he says, and he internalised their sensibility and respect for the natural world.   

In his quest to “do things differently” he takes it to a micro-level, picking up and dropping off materials on site at nighttime so there is less traffic so he uses less petrol, and riding his bike to work the next day.

After he left Fairfax in the late nineties, Jellie freelanced, often as a travel writer with much flying around the globe, and all that that entails.

“I had many years as a travel writer, consuming, and I feel terrible about that,” Jellie says. “I had too big a carbon footprint l and now I want to green the world.”  

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