As the crackling flames from a seven-kilometre front of fire leapt nearer, threatening to consume Rhian Berning’s family home, she packed what she could into the car and fled to safety with her two young children and pets. Her husband and parents stayed behind on another corner of the property to fight the fire and try to save the original farmstead where her parents still live. Safe, but unable to contact the family that stayed behind to battle the blaze, Rhian and the children were left wondering what was happening to their loved ones and their home as the wildfire raged through rural Plettenberg Bay in early 2017.
The main farmhouse was saved and everyone was safe. But the cottage where the young family of four had lived for ten years was burned to the ground.
And so began the challenge to build stronger, greener, better, for Rhian Berning and her family. And they needed to do it quickly. “Time was a challenge, because as fire survivors we had no home. There was such an impetus to get us into our newly built home as soon as possible. As a mother this was a big drive for me too,” she tells Open Source Green.
The family moved into their new house in February 2018. The beautiful home is entirely off-grid and depends on solar power, gas and harvested rainwater. It came about through masses of research by Rhian, her family and the community on how to build the greenest, most resilient home possible. She admits that she had to make sacrifices on her ultimate green home for the sake of getting their home finished in the shortest time.
“The biggest challenge though, was trying to do things differently when everyone you are working with is used to doing things the way they have always been done. I had to be really strong in my convictions about making greener choices, which was not easy as I have no experience in building and I was working with people who have decades of conventional experience,” notes Rhian.
The process of sifting through what was left of their burned down home also played an important part of the process, as Rhian describes on her blog. “One of the greatest learnings of our trial by fire – the importance of separating what we see as useless rubble or waste.”
She explains that they started to slowly separate the rubble of their home into useful parts. All the broken but sentimental crockery was put to one side for a mosaic splashback in the new kitchen. Glass was separated out, with some incredible warped wine glasses and jars re-used creatively and the rest sent to recycling. Everything metal was gathered, and besides keeping a few pieces for an interesting mobile, all the rest was sent for recycling. Half-burnt wire cabling and copper water piping were also taken to the recycling depot to be stripped and re-used. Brick and mortar rubble was used to stabilise the driveway and road. Burnt trees were stockpiled for firewood and an entire burnt Milkwood tree was used as a feature which includes a balustrade. Burnt rainwater tanks were neatly cut and used as gravel reed beds for filtering greywater.
“The only pile, and it wasn’t a big one, that we took to be dumped was all the burnt plastic, buckled rainwater gutters and the melted bottoms of children’s gumboots. We could find no purpose for these and it’s a stark reminder of how we should reduce our use of plastic because it is one of the few things that becomes truly rubbish.”
The family intended to substantially renovate the old farm-workers cottage and had already designed plans for the home, but the fire changed and accelerated things. “I felt very strongly that we could not just look at the design of the building in isolation and needed to look at the whole system in its entirety as nothing works alone and everything is interconnected. The design is pretty much exactly like that drawing now (see image below), although we have not finished planting the food forest or fire break species. It’s still a work in progress,” says Rhian.
Despite being given a blank canvas after the fire, Rhian was determined to salvage as much of what remained as possible. The foundations were still intact and the footprint of the new house is exactly the same as the cottage that burned down. The family built up a level and added a timber deck which makes the new home seem much larger. “Our home was a converted farm workers cottage so it was small and cosy, it only had two internal doors, one being to the only bathroom. We lived simply with a veggie garden and rainwater tanks, but had not begun to work the land,” explains Rhian.
Many of the bricks from the original burnt down cottage were saved – scrubbed clean individually and checked for structural integrity before being used again. “Eventually it was just taking such a long time to check and clean each brick on its own, that the builders needed to carry on with new bricks. We made sure these were locally sourced,” says Rhian.
The home comprises cavity walls, making use of the pocket of air in between two brick walls as an insulator. The original bricks remain exposed and so the connection with the original cottage is celebrated. There is no paint on the exterior of the house and an earth wash is used on the interior, giving the walls an earthy appearance.
New home life
Because the existing foundations were used and the home is oriented to cherish the views of the Indalo Conservancy, the house does not have a north-facing roof. A carport was built, with the roof designed specifically to house the 5kVA solar system.
“We want for absolutely nothing here on solar. We have a very low electricity consuming home, despite having all the mod-cons like a big fridge and a washing machine,” says Rhian, adding that life is more comfortable than it ever was before.
Because no toxic elements were used in the construction of the new home, moving in did not cause any headaches or tight chests, which for Rhian who is very sensitive to smells, was a big benefit. Locally made biodegradable products from The Clean Shop – orange gel and orange all purpose spray, with return containers for refills (zero waste), are used for everyday cleaning. “I also love Mrs. Martin’s Microbes and More, made in South Africa using locally found microbes for probiotic cleaning,” adds Rhian.
“It is so satisfying that absolutely no water is wasted, it is all returned to the system to grow food for us which makes it a circular system,” she says. There are 40 000 litres worth of tanks and a 5 000 litre tank for the garden. All greywater is sent through a gravel reed bed and then to the veggie garden. Blackwater and kitchen sink and dishwasher are water sent through an algae filtration system and then to the banana growing pit.
When it comes to waste management in the house, everything is recycled or composted. Non-recyclables are ‘eco-bricked’ and the family tries to reduce potential waste entering the home by refusing single-use plastics.
“We live such ‘normal’ life with absolutely everything we need,” says Rhian, explaining that they sometimes marvel in the wonder that they are living completely powered by the sun and harvested rainwater. Throughout the process, Rhian had to think on her feet and be adaptable. Because they incorporated so many gifted, second hand and recycled elements into the home, it was always changing and evolving around new elements. “This was a deeply satisfying and alive creative process,” she affirms.
Energy: 8 x 300 watt panels, 12 x 2 volt batteries, 5kVA inverter 24 volt, charge controller and colour control to monitor incoming and outgoing energy use. Gas for cooking and heating, energy efficient lighting and appliances.
Water: Rainwater harvesting, greywater treatment, blackwater treatment.
Materials: Recycled bricks from burnt home, new bricks and timber, second hand wooden doorframes and internal doors from Kia Ora Joinery, Magnaboard for drywalling, gifted gum posts for deck and pergola, Pronature paint, Jax Oleum for wooden floors, Eco Paint sealant for concrete sealing on floors, new corrugated roof, aluminium external doors and guttering, used existing foundations, burnt rainwater tanks for gravel reed beds. Furniture is mostly bought second hand or gifted second hand furniture and furnishings.
Management: All waste recycled, biodegradable and probiotic cleaning products used.
Landscaping: Replanting indigenous trees and and a permaculture design with the layout of swales, food forest and a vegetable garden with a Hugel bed.
Contractor: Coastal Builders and Plett Roofing
Architect: Anja Wiehl and Das Lyon at dNA Architectural Design with input from John Barrett
Engineer: Poise Engineers consulted
Landscaping and permaculture: Phillipa Mallac and Rhian Berning
Solar installation: ecoSunergy and Specialized Solar Systems