By Carol Bucknell
Many of us dream of living off-grid in a self-sustaining home complete with chooks, a vegetable garden and thoughtful environmental inclusions. Mostly we envisage this set up in the country. But when life demands that we be close to the city for work and play, it's all too easy to put this dream on hold.

But this wasn't the case for a young couple who wanted to harness a more environmentally friendly way of life by reworking a four-bedroom terrace in the inner east Sydney suburb of Alexandria. Their first step was to hire Clinton Cole of CplusC Architectural Workshop to oversee their home's transformation. It was a heaven-sent project for CplusC, whose design ethos is based on sustainability. As Clinton says, the clients, a "modern, environmentally conscious and socially responsible couple" wanted more green space, with an emphasis on good air flow and sustainability.

Among the many green initiatives in the house he designed are an evacuated glass tube solar hot water system, underground rainwater storage for use throughout the home and garden, as well as a 3kW photovoltaic power system to run the house and charge the couple's electric car. The garden has an aquaponics system for fish waste harvesting, compost bins, a worm farm and chicken coop working in harmony with a productive vegetable garden. "Combined, these elements have meant that the house surpasses the clients' desire for a sustainable home and is virtually off grid for most the year," says the architect.

Garden at a Glance

  • Who lives here: A young couple
  • Location: Alexandria, NSW
  • Project completion: May 2015
  • Design and build: CplusC Architectural Workshop
  • Landscape: Sydney Organic Gardens (edible garden), Pepo Botanic Design (under-stair area and courtyard)
  • Awards: Winner 2017 International Green Interior Awards – Residential; 2016 Sustainability Awards – Single Dwelling; 2016 Master Builders Association National Luxury Alterations and Additions $650-$1m Category; 2016 Master Builders Association of NSW $1Million Alterations and Additions.

The architects call the project Aqua Perma Solar Firma, and say it is their most sustainable to date. To improve the flexibility of the internal spaces, they located the stairs to the upper level behind the front facade of the house. The circular glass and timber batten staircase doubles as a greenhouse, with plants growing at the base of the stairs. Himalayan bamboo softens the architecture and provides a graceful screen to the street.

The front gate is cleverly designed to double as a vertical planter for drought-tolerant succulents. Greening every spare centimeter of space like this is a sustainable approach that is common in many densely populated European cities, and is now catching on in Australia and New Zealand.

Looking back towards the staircase, its sculptural lines enhance the interior of the house. The owners say the under-stair garden brings the outside garden inside and "adds a dramatic green element to the stunning form of the stairs".

Planted around the base of the staircase is Aspidistra, once christened the cast-iron plant due to its ability to cope with low light, dust and minimal water. Aspidistra can also be planted outside in warm, shady locations.

A courtyard space in the centre of the house allows light to penetrate into the interior of the terrace, and gives internal rooms access to green space. Lush green planting in the courtyard helps improve air quality. "The stairs and courtyard are two of the main architectural features of the home, so we were mindful of how important it was to get the landscaping right," says one of the owners.

"The courtyard is the centre of our home and provides light and air to every room of the house. It also serves as collection point for water that flows from the roof down a chain passing through the counterweight to the garden sculpture below, and onto the underground water tank in the rear."

"The central courtyard is accessed through vertically hung doors operated via a rack and pinion crank wheel, paired with a custom concrete counterweight," says Clinton. The wheel is an antique that came from a farm.

The kitchen, at the rear of the house, can be fully opened up to flow into the rear garden. The custom-made movable island bench gives the couple plenty of flexibility in how they use the adjacent courtyard. Built-in bench seating along one wall takes up less space than conventional outdoor chairs.

In the rear garden, outdoor seating doubles as an aquaponics system for fish waste harvesting and fertilising the vertical lettuce garden that runs along the entire wall behind it. The owner's interest in permaculture drove the design of the rear garden. "The garden acts as a social hub, with visitors being drawn subconsciously through the home and outside to sit among the plants and the chickens. Productive gardens are always changing and somewhat unpredictable but this adds to our enjoyment," says one of the owners. "Somewhat unexpectedly, a papaya grew out of our compost last summer and has given a tree burgeoning with ripe fruit!"

Permaculture practices, including reusing all waste on site, have been incorporated into the design. "Our garden feeds us and we feed the chooks with scraps, which in turn gives us eggs and fertiliser for the garden," says one of the owners. "Similarly, the fish deposit nitrogen in our pond, which feeds the bacteria on the clay beads in the vertical garden, which in turn feeds the plants, which filter the water in a continuous cycle."

The chickens are housed in a coop on one side of the garden that is integrated with onsite storage and a worm farm.

Planter boxes for the fruit and vegetables incorporate a wicking system (a water reservoir below the beds) that reduces water use. Other beds are irrigated from rainwater stored underground on site, which also supplies the toilets and laundry. The gardens are so productive that excess produce is shared among neighbours, friends, and family.

Photos by CplusC Architectural Workshop

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