IT CAME AND WENT with a suddenness and fury. The rain was here to stay and its presence added to the cold of the early winter evening.
“Hope this weather doesn’t affect attendance”, the woman from the Bendigo Bank at the registration desk said to me.
“Well, there’s nothing like cold weather and heavy rain to keep people away”, I replied somewhat pessimistically.
I looked around the hall at the Randwick Community Centre. There was still a little time before the event was due to start but it seemed my pessimism might be well placed. The number of attendees you could count on the fingers of two hands. That the event could be a washout was a thought unsaid by more than myself that night.
Then, a few minutes before starting time a sudden influx of people had the registration woman busy ticking names off her list and giving them sticky name badges. Far from a washout, it seemed the night was going to go well. My pessimism turned to optimism.
And it did go well. The event, billed as the Sustainability and Social Impact Forum, was a joint venture between the Clovelly branch of the Bendigo Bank and Randwick City Council. As another woman from the bank said to me, rather than spending money on advertising budgets, the bank prefers to spend it on events such as these. Nationally, the bank as disbursed around $165 million to communities.
A diversity or presenters and topics
Diversity is an established principle used in permaculture design, and although the seminar was not a permaculture event per se, it featured a diversity of speakers.
Two architecture companies were among the presenters. One did modern-looking energy efficient one-off designs for what I assume are clients with deep pockets or a good line of credit. The other was an innovative little company developing an approach to affordable housing based on the Ikea model — the flat-pack home (and here).
Big World Homes has developed an approach to affordable housing based on modular, off-site manufacture that it says can be constructed by two people over a few days using simple tools, including the roof that is installed from the inside. It is positioned as a transitional housing model to span the gap between renting and first home ownership and to relieve the chronic housing crisis and mortgage stress in our big cities.
According to the company, their design is:
“ …a modular, mobile, off-grid housing system made from structural-thermal-waterproof integrated panels. It’s ordered online, arrives flat-packed and can be built by two people over a few days using simple tools, making incredible savings on labour”.
It is what has become known as a ‘tiny house’ and, like many tiny houses, is built on a long, wheeled trailer.
Joanne Jakovich, who presented for Big World Homes, said that the small house movement has taken off in the US but is less visible here in Australia. I agree with her in general, however I believe many people in the permaculture design movement have known of the tiny house movement for some time and it has a growing presence on social media. I recall visiting what would now be called small houses that were built in the 1980s and over following decades, well before someone created the ‘tiny house’ tag. They, though, were fixed houses rather than the mobile variant of the model.
The tiny house movement started to create a presence for itself in Australia less than a decade ago as news of it spread from the US. The idea of solving the housing affordability crisis with small dwellings that can be towed to new locations might be new in its present form, however it reminds me of how Australians have lived permanently in caravans over the decades. It also reminds me of a home on a rural property I visited in Aotearoa-New Zealand that was mounted on skids so, if needed, it could be towed to a new location on the property. That had to do with getting around building regulations.
Big World Homes has also launched Big World Communities:
“ …a not-for-profit that works in partnership with developers, councils, community groups and individual landowners to locate off-grid home owner communities on unused land”.
This has potential to address a challenge mobile tiny home owners face — where to park their home. In North America this is being addressed through tiny home parks where tiny home owners have access to shared services in a self-managed environment.
A catalog of good ideas
The presentations were something like a catalog of permaculture solutions that have been developed over the years. They illustrate how ideas once popular in permaculture design in past decades have taken on lives of their own, leaving the permaculture nursery to grow in the world beyond as independent practices. One solution offered at the seminar, social (also known as ethical) investment, is one of these. The contemporary movement, it’s actually an industry, was started in Australia in the 1980s by Damien Lynch, who became a permaculture design course graduate and who was instrumental in developing permaculture’s focus on alternative economics in that decade.
As well as social investment, solutions offered at the forum included environmental protection (a run-down of EPA activity), community gardens using the local Coogee Community Garden as example, solar energy, composting — with the regional Compost Revolution as an example of a joint local government/social enterprise approach to community composting education — and permaculture.
…permaculture is a platform of ethics, principles and characteristics upon which its practitioners develop useful applications…
The Bank had asked me to talk about permaculture design and practice. I approached this not through a theoretical presentation on the design system but by explaining that just like the mobile devices people had in their pockets, which are platforms of hardware and software on which developers produce useful apps, so permaculture is a platform of ethics, principles and characteristics upon which its practitioners develop useful applications. Using a photo presentation I introduced people enacting permaculture in different ways, such as through social investment, community education, community garden development, international development, horticultural education, landscape architecture and architecture.
Feed the people
People gather around food, and good food accompanied the forum, a requisite or any successful event where organisers want people to mingle and meet.
My only suggestion for improving the event would be that, next time, run the presentations consecutively. Offer coffee and a light snack before starting and more substantial finger food at the end. That way there is continuity and the opportunity to continue networking more so than interrupting the presentations for a brief food break.
The Sustainability and Social Impact Forum was an event even more successful because it attracted around its 100 people who had registered online despite the cold, heavy showers that swept though and battered on the roof on the community centre. It demonstrates that the Bendigo Bank is a different kind of bank and that councils can partner with such progressive businesses to create something relevant and useful to people, their concerns and their needs.