Dancing Ground of the Sun, built by John Brown for his wife, Colleen, and himself, is a fantasy eco-home. The couple owned a beautiful conventional home in Te Atatu when Colleen began to get asthma so badly she couldn’t even make the bed. Her naturopath ordered carpet shampoos every month, but the carpet was almost new so Colleen decided to look for alternatives. She and John had always wanted a piece of land to build on.
A healthy home
They chose a 3.5 acre plot near Helensville, north-west of Auckland. Before building, they attended a Healthy Buildings course where they met Reinhardt Kanuka-Fuchs, founder of the Building and Biology Ecology Institute of NZ. He raved about earth bricks. They also met Graeme North, a well-known NZ eco-architect. ”We consider him the guru of earth-building in NZ,” says Colleen. “He promised he would get his design through Council, and he did – the plans came back with no alterations.”
John began the build in 1996. They lived in the shed for five years while he worked full-time on the house and Colleen continued to work.
Building with local earth
The earth brick walls went up first. John made earth bricks containing the white clay sub-soil on the property that had been dug out for footings. Sample bricks went to Whangarei for testing. “We were lucky with cream-coloured clay,” says John, “because our house isn’t as dark as some earth-buildings. “The bricks contain 10% cement. We were happy with that because the structure stood for 12 months without a roof and was fine.”
The main roof is a Graeme North specialty. Supported by 17 re-used pole creating a peak, it’s made from hessian steeped in cement and draped over the poles until set. Then it’s covered with cement plaster and netting layers incorporating chopped polypropylene rope fibre for strength, and for insulation, the thick outer plaster mix contains as many polystyrene beads as the mix would support.
Passive solar floors
Flooring began with a compacted layer of stone chips, then a clay-sand mix, then plastic membrane to stop moisture uptake, and finally polystyrene sheeting and concrete, over which South Island schist was laid. Schist extends six feet into the livingroom, and covers the entire hallway and atrium. The remainder of the floor is recycled tawa on timber framing laid over concrete. Top priority was maximising the passive solar energy absorbed by the stone. Positioned to the north, Dancing Ground is never below 14 degrees in winter, or over 22 degrees in summer.
Vents incorporated high into every face of the building haven’t been used. “One summer we opened the vents,” said John, “but the outside air was warmer than inside and it equalised the temperature. The vents were overkill.”
Coloured glass windows at the roof peak also open, but haven’t been used either. Except for one kitchen window, all windows are fixed, and fresh air is supplied through mesh-covered openings secured by shutters.
Timber frames extending from the eaves support vine growth (grapes, wisteria and bougainvillea). In summer the leafy growth provides shade and cool air for living areas, but it’s cut back in April to allow the sun to heat the stone floor.
A quick tour
The circular main area houses living room, dining area, kitchen, bathroom, laundry, and a mezzanine. An envy-evoking circular pantry featuring a multi-level Lazy Susan at its centre is attached to the kitchen.
A curved wing off the main circle accommodates three sizeable bedrooms, a generous hallway, and a breath-taking atrium complete with indoor/outdoor garden and pond, and a stream trickling beneath openings in the schist floor.
The pond has attracted its own wildlife and frogs regularly visit. “Thankfully, they don’t croak,” says John, “but they do occasionally tour the house. We’ve seen them hopping across the livingroom floor.”
The roof of the wing, flat-looking although slightly rounded for run-off, was planted out for insulation and appearance, initially with aloes and succulents. After a leak appeared inside, they discovered the aloe root growth was extraordinarily vigorous and had penetrated the membrane and blocked drains requiring a crowbar to lever the roots free of their determined grip . Tree seedlings thrived, including a pine which had managed to attain a metre in height. Today the wing sports a grass roof from which the Browns can enjoy the view.
Comfort, cooking and coppicing
Dancing Ground has no carpet, curtains, wallpaper, or paint….and Colleen hasn’t had asthma for 15 years. Although the house was not completed until 2007, in 2001 the Browns moved in, but continued to cook up at the shed. By the time the temporary kitchen was ready for a permanent one, Colleen knew she wanted a woodstove with a wetback. “I light it every night.”
Firewood for the stove is all grown on the property. Of the blocks of 12 intermingled coppicing varieties originally planted in 1994 in, Colleen says, “The gums and wattle did best, but now the gums are too big. The Tasmanian Blackwood coppiced well but can get borer. Poplar is my preferred firewood tree. It stands straight, is easy to harvest and to direct when felling, and can be cut when small so doesn’t need splitting. We also use fruit wood from our orchards. In retrospect we’d plant less firewood, and more fruit trees.
The Browns buy electricity. The wood stove heats their water, does their cooking and provides sufficient heat, but John, a craftsman and wood carver, needed power for tools, and building the house.
Apart from electrical and plumbing work John built the house alone. When he needed assistance such as getting the roof frame up, it often came in exchange for a few beers
A cabinetmaker by trade and a master craftsman, John has done all the cabinetry and woodwork throughout this mystical home, including a proliferation of magnificent carvings. Wherever he could, he incorporated organic lines, and even the doors have curved frames.
Outside, the oiled window-frames require recoating with Sikkens oil every five years but aside from this there is little to worry about maintenance-wise. Inside where occasional work to preserve framing or cabinetry is required, Colleen applies another coat of shellac. There’s no paint in the house, so no upkeep.
Composting toilet and grey water system
The loo has the distinction of being the first composting toilet to be permitted inside a house in Rodney. Colleen says, “We have heaps of worms in our toilet and empty it every three years – usually only two barrow loads because the worms do such a good job. We throw shredded paper in for the worms and occasionally some fine sawdust.”
The toilet is vented by a flue but the Browns have modified it with a small electric fan which runs 24/7. “I tried everything,” said Colleen, “chopping up geraniums and all sorts of things but it really needs the fan to keep it pleasant. We had to modify the chimney because of the downdraft, and also where it surfaced on the roof, if the wind blew in a certain direction, the odour reached the deck where we liked to sit with a glass of wine. We laid it down which has worked. We’re very happy with the system.”
Water is in good supply, largely because they use so little with a composting toilet. Rainwater is collected from the shed roof into a 20,000 litre tank plus a smaller one, while run-off from the main roof ends up in the spring-fed pond below the house which is used for watering gardens. John built a system to take the first wash of dusty rain through a pipe and out, before potable water filters into the tanks.
Grey water is disposed of through a Graeme North designed system. It runs through a grease-trap, then through three swales planted with canna lilies, alocasia, and water-loving plants, and ends up in the garden. “It’s very efficient,” says Colleen. “We never see it.”
A dream manifested
Colleen and John opened themselves out completely to their fantasies, and gave Graeme North carte blanche to come up with something spectacular while incorporating their dreams. He certainly did what he was asked, and the house is one of his enduring favourites. Everywhere the eye falls, a beautiful object, usually hand-carved, is there to catch it. Art lives in this home with two extraordinarily creative people who live peacefully with the earth while dreaming their world into existence.
Facts and features
Eco-Architect, Graeme North
5337 Earth bricks
Circus-top ferro-cement roof over the circular main living area
Planted flatish roof (on the bedroom wing)
Floors: schist/recycled tawa
No paint, wallpaper, carpet, or curtains
Passive solar heat
Eave frames for vines provide shade and cool air
Grey water goes to the garden
Wood stove; firewood grown on property
First published in Organic NZ – Mar/Apr 2015 – www.organicnz.org.nz