Laura Ryan and the Impossible House

Take a dingy old workers cottage on a tight site in Sydney’s inner west suburbs of Newtown, ambitions for an off-grid oasis and a tight budget. Sounds unrealistic? Not for Laura Ryan.

Newtown resident Laura Ryan jokes that her inner city house renovation/rebuild has been labelled “impossible”. With no fewer than seven architects, 15 water specialists, 10 solar experts, three sustainability experts, two legal experts and one project manager walking away from the project, that’s understandable.

But now the project is due for completion this year.

This is thanks partly to architect Paul Adams and his low-rise timber prefabrication factory Fairweather Homes based in Melbourne, who has stepped up to the challenge.

Adams’ solution is a light-filled house, with new components built mostly offsite. This will ensure quality and airtightness to allow for thermal comfort without mechanical heating or cooling, and it will also help control costs and construction times.

In a pleasant surprise for Ryan, she found the off-site option will be able to salvage existing materials and integrate them seamlessly into the design, with components such as inbuilt bookshelves – all helping to keep the embodied carbon down.  

“I though pre-fab was not something that can be customised in that way – I knew that you can ask to customise the design and shape, but not customise to the point that you take recycled materials and incorporate them into the building.”

Laura Ryan

Because Ryan wants others to replicate the home for themselves, she didn’t want to scrimp on liveability and comfort.

“There’s this perception that sustainability is daggy and the whole idea is to do something that everyone will want to replicate.

“So, to build this ‘sustainability’ that is not appealing from a look and feel perspective…then you’re not going to win everyone over.”

Denby Dowling is the interior designer on the project, and he’s been working hard to source beautiful sustainable materials, such as water-based paints.

The toughest part is sticking to budget, with Ryan not wanting project costs to soar above a standard renovation. Affordability is crucial to the project’s replicability, she says.

To stay or not to stay (connected to the grid)

While Ryan recognises that “it’s probably better to stay connected to the grid” so she can participate in a flexible two-way energy system, she’s also worried about the grid’s resilience. 

The Black Summer bushfires woke Ryan up to the issue of energy security, and the vulnerability of energy infrastructure to major bushfire events.

She also wanted to contribute to the demand for batteries and help bring costs down. As such, Ryan and her solar consultant Roland Lawrence landed on staying connected to the grid so electricity can be exported, but it’s a one way connection with no electricity able to be taken from the grid.

A complication for the planned 7.11kW energy system is the heritage listing for the area that precludes solar panels on the front roof. It doesn’t help that they’re working with a small, dark site, at just 104 square metres in total.

Because of these restrictions, Ryan is negotiating with the Inner West Council to allow solar panels on the front part of the roof. While she believes in the value of heritage, she also says that when the world is facing a climate emergency, the needs of heritage need to be balanced with the reality of a natural environment in decline.

Water is still an unticked box

For Ryan, water has been the toughest nut to crack, with the water solution still open to tender for engineers. She says that while the technology exists, it keeps blowing out the budget.

“It’s the excess water that can’t get recycled that’s the problem,” she says.

The final designs include a 12,000 litre storage tank and 1000 litre Rootzone grey water storage system that will be used to water the vertical garden and reused in the washing machine. Potable water will be stored under the house and treated by a three-phase filtration system.

A fairy tale toilet

Another limitation of the tight site was on the potential for a composting toilet or blackwater recycling system.

“So, I stumbled across these incinerating toilets that solved all those problems,” Ryan says.

The product manufacturer, fetchingly labelled Cinderella, needs only electricity to work (quite a lot of it, unfortunately) and sets the waste on fire, with the only biproduct a cup of ash every week or 10 days.

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  1. Poor Laura Ryan has got caught up in the system that does nothing real. She has just been delivered of a 1950’s square wheel, and, she will wake up one day and ask herself why she wasted the time and money for a trip to nowhere.
    Before you start on a journey you need to know where you want to go, and, why you need to go there.