With green living concepts attracting increasing interest, so, too, is the Living Building Challenge, a certification process established by the International Living Future Institute.
A Beachlands couple believes they can meet the challenge which is all about creating healthy, efficient spaces which give back more to the environment than they take as JES MAGILL discovered.
Rochelle Payne’s friends reckon she might be bonkers. She’s a working mother studying for a PhD yet she and husband Joel, an aircraft engineer turned building materials business owner, have taken on the Living Building Challenge – building a ‘green’ home to the most rigorous global standards.
Rochelle’s a sustainable building consultant and is project managing the build and Joel is the ‘freelance builder’, tipped to start work when the building consent is through, hopefully any day now.
A few years ago, the couple bought and renovated their first family home in Beachlands and enjoyed the process so much they wanted to build their next house from scratch. They haven’t travelled far to pursue their dream.
They’ve rented out their home to fund the project which they’ll build on the section behind. Meanwhile, the family of four is renting a tiny bach on the other side of the section which is available to them until Christmas.
The brief to their architect, Phil Smith, was for a simple, minimalist design, driven by aesthetics and ethics – following personal preference and adhering to the challenge’s extensive list of banned materials and chemicals – and eliminating features such as plasterboard, ceiling finishes, skirting and scotia.
At 340sqm, the two-level design has kitchen, living, dining, master bedroom and spare bedroom/study upstairs, and downstairs there are two bedrooms for the children (aged four and two), as well as a self-contained flat.
Rochelle’s father, Graham Ade was a structural engineer who built many of the marinas around New Zealand. This meant, while growing up, Rochelle – who could have stayed home playing with dolls – was helping her dad build real big things.
“I spent a lot of time working with him at various sites but the most exciting project was helping with the floating marina berths for the 2000 America’s Cup bases in Auckland,” she says.
Of studying for her degree in electrical engineering, Rochelle says, “I hated it and haven’t used it one day of my working life. If I ever allow myself one regret, it’s not studying structural engineering instead.”
Working with structures, though, has remained a career focus. Her PhD is in the performance of green buildings, she helps others build ‘green’, and carries out assessments for the Green Star NZ and Homestar building certifications.
When the Paynes visited the Auckland Home Show last year in house-planning mode, it was a game changer. “We were thinking we’d build in brick veneer but when we saw a display by an earth home construction company, Terra Firma which showed rammed earth walls, that was it. We were hooked,” says Rochelle.
Made from a mixture of sand, clay and sometimes cement ‘rammed’ together, ‘earth’ homes are said to be cooler in summer, warmer in winter, quieter, and have strong load bearing, pest proof walls usually no thinner than 250mm. The finished effect is beautiful too, and often mistaken for terrazzo or marble.
“It’s envisaged that work on stage one, the one bedroom flat adjoining the garage, will get underway when the first sod is turned hopefully in a few weeks,” Rochelle says. “We hope to move into the flat come December and camp there until the entire house is completed.”
That needs to be by September 2018 if the house is to appear, as hoped, in a TV series featuring inspired residential architecture.
When they initially decided to target Living Building Challenge certification, no other residential dwellings were registered in New Zealand. Now there are three registered and to be the first to certify as a Living Building they need to live in the home for a year before it can be assessed.
As Rochelle says, “The race is on!”
Asked how the project’s going so far she adds: “We’re completely winging it. With the kids, work and the PhD, I’m too busy to plan everything to the ninth degree. I know everything should be sorted by now, all decisions made and the budget set, but that’s not the way we’re working.”
Luckily, she’s the positive kind and despite the freewheeling, organic organisational model, the project’s going okay. “Sometimes you actually have to see how things are going to look before you can make the final decisions – winging it does have advantages!”
It goes without saying the design consent process has been challenging. In hindsight, their first choice of a structural engineer wasn’t a good fit – “we lost five months of project time,” – but with a new team on board they’re making up ground.
In a bitter sweet irony, Graham, who died in 2013, would have loved to have shared his expertise, Rochelle says. “Getting resource consent hasn’t been too arduous but the discharge consent – that’s another story. Council is concerned the site is too small to discharge grey water so we’re working through that.”
She’s also advocating for a Reduced Development Contributions (RDC), because the house won’t be hooked up to standard council services such as sewage and stormwater.
“It’s frustrating that Auckland Council doesn’t reimburse or waive RDCs to exemplary green builders, which Wellington City Council does.
So, is it worth it, and is she bonkers? “Most days, and sometimes – it all depends how much sleep I’ve had. But overall it’s definitely going to be worth it.”
Joel, initially ‘just along for the ride’, is now in full support mode and is soon off to Canada where he’s doing a course in making rammed earth walls and investigating business opportunities while there. It feels real and exciting now,” he says.
As to his wife’s state of mind: “Bonkers, no, overloaded, yes, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. I can see her dream and vision and think she just likes coming up with solutions to build something amazing.”
It’s said that a quality-built home can be ‘read’ like a book; that it tells the story of its design, build and vision. Although the Paynes aren’t playing this construction by the book, it’s certainly looks like it will be a very interesting and beautiful read.
By JES MAGILL