Why it took this Victorian village 50 years to come to fruition

The ideas behind a 25-27 house ecological village development close to Castlemaine that has just been given the green light by Mount Alexander council have probably been fermenting in the mind of Neil Barrett for half a century.
Nanjing Night Net

Active and effective on myriad environmental issues since he was involved with Friends of the Earth and anti-nuclear issues in the 1970s, Barrett, 72, and wife Heather have evolved a grand scheme for the transformation of a 1.4-hectare slice of land they have occupied since the 1980s into an eco village. It is projected to have an environmental footprint one-fifth of a conventional housing estate development.

It will generate its own electricity and fresh, organic food, as well as emphasising the health and happiness of future residents. It also puts “the beauty and spirit” of the site high on the agenda.

At present, The Paddock Eco Village, 1.4 kilometres from Castlemaine, is, Barrett says “just an area of light bush with a dam in the middle of it”.

Sometime next year, when the first stage of seven houses and the community centre begin to take shape, Barrett anticipates the project will sell itself.

What the council last week unanimously endorsed as “an exciting project” for the district is aiming to achieve an 8.5-star energy rating for each dwelling in the horseshoe arrangement of one to four bedroom homes surrounding a large orchard and vegetable garden (35 per cent of the site). It is also hoped that the 16 solar panels on each roof will generate more power (105 per cent) than any of the freehold houses will consume.

The dark green ambitions of this nascent village is appropriate both to Castlemaine ??? a town Barrett says was a committed environmentalist centre before he and Heather arrived ??? and to the chief driving personalities of what is now the impressive team of professionals who contrived the blueprint that follows the principles of the Living Building Challenge.

A US-based green building certification program, Barrett says the challenge sets out “the most rigorous environmental building standards in the world”. Based on the metaphor of a flower with seven petals, fulfilment of its essential performance benchmarks will only be confirmed 12 months after the project’s completion. Related: Neighbourhoods going greenRelated: What happened to the great Australian backyard?Related: Why prefabricated housing is back in vogue

And, as the developer explains, it is a big program to meet. It involves urban agriculture (the food gardens), energy, waste management (on-site grey-water reuse), materials (buildings of timber and recycled brick), offset habitat exchange, and the more esoteric qualities of the beauty and spirit of place, and the health and happiness of the owners.

“It will be of a human scale,” Barrett says, “and everyone will have equal access to the nearby bushland”.

While back and front yards will be private places for the one- and two-level dwellings, The Paddock will otherwise involve a lot of sensible resource sharing, including a community centre with spare bedrooms, laundry and kitchenette, capacious water tanks, sheds and tools and an electric charging station for bikes.

Unlike most developments ??? no matter how environmentally-idealised ??? The Paddock strongly emphasises “the primacy of landscape”, with a landscape architect involved from the get-go, not as an afterthought.

Though Barrett has thought about the project for a long time, it only developed real momentum two years ago when, at a party, he bumped into Remi Rauline, a powerhouse project manager, to whom he outlined his dream. The Frenchman came on board and quickly pulled together a team of seven consultants.

Last May, when it was officially launched, 90 people attended the event, and 85 have continued to indicate real interest in the project. Six people, the prospective pioneers of The Paddock, have recently been attending workshops that explain what they are committing to under the Living Building Challenge guidelines, and to enable them to work with The Paddock’s architect on their house designs.

Barrett says this foundation group will attend the fourth and final workshop next February, when he expects contracts will be signed.

Once The Paddock buildings manifest, he believes the hard work of philosophical groundbreaking will be complete “and we think it will then develop a life of its own”.

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