Gorgeous Green House

The Renovation Journey of a 1940’s ‘Traditional’ to 2015 ‘Contemporary, Green & Gorgeous’

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Gigantic Radishes!

Can you believe these beauties?

Veggie farming is great fun at the best of times but when you produce something like this what a great laugh.  I must confess I’ve probably left them a bit long but they are still really delicious.  Not quite as peppery as when small but many people would prefer that.  Really delicious lightly sautéed in a little butter and salt.

Comfrey plant

Radishes have to be one of the most rewarding crops;   they germinate from seed in 3 days and you harvest within 3 weeks.  They are really good fun to grow with kids who can lose interest in a carrot or potato that can take months. My radishes (actually all my veggies) are nurtured with worm wee and organic fertilizers.  In this instance Comfrey tea.  The easiest thing in the world to grow and make.  Just squish the leaves into a container (I use and old 5L product bottle), stick some holes in the lid (if you don’t it may explode) and leave in the sun to ferment.  Then dilute into your watering can about 1 – 20.

I’ve had a long-standing love affair with my worms so I won’t short change their PR in this post and will give them one on their own.  Suffice to say that their ‘wee’ is really leechate and once you’ve got over the squeamish bit they are fun, really easy to farm and really make a difference to the quality of your harvest.

Oh and  look at this beautiful Dietes bicolour.  The two beetles match with their yellow spots!  It must be very tasty in there as all the flowers in my clump had these beetles on.  If anyone knows anything about them please share.

Dietes bicolour plus matching beetles


Recycling Crazy Paving

Common crazy paving or ‘slasto’

We are sending mountains of rubbish to our landfill, much of it unnecessarily. With our massive housing shortages in South Africa (sorry Zuma, not buying the ‘election speak’) building materials of all kind are especially valued.If on your DIY or restoration project you are just chucking your old ‘stuff’  into the rubbish ……there is an alternative! If you are feeling unmotivated to sell it or recycle/upcycle, find someone to give it away to.  You will be amazed at how valued those bits of wood, iron work, carpets, cabinets, sanware etc. are to many. Just get the word out in your neighbourhood and you won’t even have to do the dismantling!

OK, long winded start to the Crazy Paving bit. The word is out on my project so I’m farming out and fending off. The Crazy Paving which has long fallen out of fashion I thought would make great pathways through the garden. This is what I’ve just done:

1. Measured out pathway with sophisticated measuring instrument, logs either side

2. Set out the paving so the shapes are easy to see

3. Put about 5cm of soil down and had lots of fun playing puzzles.

Bonus pic of gorgeous Burchellia bubalina (small tree). Fantastic nectar plant for birds and butterflies and fruit for barbets, bulbuls, mousebirds and starlings. Larval food plant for 4 species of moths.

4. Filled in the gaps with more soil and in no time at all, garden path!


Concrete Log Idiocy!

I was watching a gardening programme on TV last night and the presenter was showing viewers how to make their own concrete logs.

Now I ask you with tears in my eyes why on earth would anyone want a concrete log in their garden? We were encouraged to get hold of a log, cover it in silicone which becomes the mould that you then press onto a concrete ‘sausage’ to aproximate a log.  The result was not very effective.

So lets unpack this.  One starts with a real log and and uses it to make something that looks sort of the same – but not really


one could, with that same log:

Log beginning to rot and growing moss

allow nature to take its course so beautiful mosses and fungi can grow.

Termites feasting

Termites and other insects can then begin to devour the log and birds and other wildlife will be attracted into your garden to feast on them.

Black Collared Barbet

Olive Woodpecker

If you are very lucky (but only if you absolutely  NEVER use pesticides) you may even encourage these gorgeous chameleons into your garden.

Black Headed Dwarf chameleon

I know I will have arrived as a  gardener when my garden’s health and vibrancy creates a home for these delicate and highly endangered creatures.

Or then again – I can put something that sort of looks like log… sorry, can’t even finish that sentence!

mmm…wonder how much the concrete company paid for that insert?


Green Cooking with a Polysterene Filled Bag

Even if you don’t give a damn about the health of our planet and are only swayed by  things that make obvious financial sense then this is a product for you.  I’m ashamed to say that I have only recently made my purchase and I am at a loss as to say why it has taken me so long!  Foolish me.  Here is how it works:

1. Prepare you soup, stew, curry, rice etc on top of the stove as usual

2. When bubbling furiously, snap on the lid and nestle it into the wonder bag.

3. Pull the drawstring tight and leave for as long as you would normally. You can’t burn the pot so if you forget about it it won’t dry out.

4. Several hours later (or less depending on what you are cooking) a delicious, tender and succulent curry!

South African eco-entrepreneur Sarah Collins came up with the idea four years ago during a power cut, when she managed to keep her dinner cooking by surrounding the pan with cushions. She admits: ‘It’s the oldest technology in the world. I don’t understand how someone else hasn’t made it already. Our ancestors buried hot stew pots in the ground to keep them cooking without fuel and our grandmothers tucked them into hayboxes’. With the Wonderbag, Collins has simply brought the idea up-to-date and made it portable.

So in addition to the obvious energy  savings (50 –  90%) using a Wonderbag also:

  •  leads to improved air quality in homes by reducing smoke from cooking fires.
  • reduces risk of shack fires caused by paraffin stoves.
  • empowers communities by increasing the cash available for discretionary expenses.
  • provides job opportunities and skill development opportunities in disadvantaged communities for women making Wonderbags.
  • allows tasty, nutritious meals can be prepared ahead of time.
  • reduces food wastage as food cannot burn or overcook.
  • provides cooling properties allowing people dependant on public transport to bring their food shopping home before it spoils.
  • with regular use, one Wonderbag can avoid one ton of carbon emissions every two years.
  • reduces total community demand for wood as fuel in rural areas promotes forest regrowth and biodiversity.
  • polystyrene is re-used instead of dumped in landfill sites.

Phew do you need any more convincing!  Look out for them at flea markets, food markets and the like.  I got mine for R100 ( about $12) at the Durban Sustainability Expo.


Recycling Via Vandelism!!

Recycling is high on our list of priorities for our Gorgeous Green House but to have vandals to start the process for us  wasn’t quite what we had in mind!

They broke in:

Entry point

Ripped out the kitchen taps causing a minor flood:

Where kitchen taps used to be

Moved onto the second bathroom and attempted to remove the taps (and managed to create a second flood on the second floor)

Upstairs bathroom

Ripped out the old geyser which was made of copper which we were looking forward to upcycling into a planter

cavity that used to house geyser

And then continued to rip out bit of iron work and the like.

The joy’s of living in Africa.

Perhaps one should take a philosophical view .  It is recycling… pity the budget isn’t unlimited.

Reality is that if they come back and finish cleaning us out of the Oregon floor board, slate tiles etc that’s quite a lot of value that we can be putting back into the house.

Soooo in typical South African style we have hired security!

Now if we could just get our planning bureaucracy to pass our plans we could start the process properly ourselves.  What on earth can be the hold up one wonders??

p.s. The assault on the Gorgeous Green House was in fact our second break-in in  48hrs.  The vandals at our current home were definitely not recycling. at a stretch one could perhaps label it redistribution.  I know many would :-).  Thankfully no one has been hurt in either incident.

Gorgeous Green Architectural Design


Several years ago when I started talking about my dream of building a ‘green house’ a friend said “oh I saw one of those … a kind of hobbit house…really ugly”  So the first misconception to clear up is that green design has nothing to do with the aesthetics of the house!  Whatever your taste (hobbit-like or otherwise) one can incorporate green design principles.  Essentially it means building in harmony with the natural environment and cooperating instead of fighting with the regional climate.  Green building takes a passive approach which requires less energy to run once the building is erected. It’s also know as bioclimatic design, eco-design, eco-friendly architecture, earth-friendly architecture, environmental architecture and natural architecture.

This post will focus on the design of the building itself, not the technology or specific materials to be used.  I will cover those aspects separately.

My house is in Durban South Africa.  We have an average of 320 days of sunshine a year. Temperatures range from 16 to 25º C in winter and  23 to 33º C in summer.  However, before you consider relocating, the warm Mozambique current flowing along our coast and summer rainfall means we also experience high humidity which can be quite debilitating from December to March.  So here is what we have briefed the architect to design into the house:


We want light (lots of) but not direct sunlight which would heat up the house and require us to put in energy guzzling air-conditioners so one of the easiest things to do is install tinted windowsCross ventilation is also a vital consideration.  Windows were planned so that each room would have opening windows on opposite sides of the room.  The most challenging areas were the downstairs bedrooms which open onto the passage .  Tricky to get cross ventilation as you can see from the drawing below.

Bedrooms tricky for cross ventilation. Pond has low opening windows to draw in cool air

We did three things; firstly designed opening windows above the doors and small high windows (second floor not in view) that open up into the passage.  The passage windows slide sideways rather than level in our out so there are no unattractive or dangerous protrusions in to the passage.


Secondly we have put whirly birds into the roof of the passageway to draw the warm air up and out of the house. These are fantastic low tech gadgets that are used a lot in factories but surprisingly not in residential properties.  The third thing we did was put opening windows at ground level next to the pond to draw in the cool air as it crosses the water.  Thanks for this great tip Greg Seymour greg@go-green-consult.com


Sun pouring into a building is a costly thing to mitigate. Passive solar cooling eliminates the need for air conditioning. The image at the top of the  page shows the house as it faces North.  In Durban this is the hottest elevation.  Fixed louvres will cut the sun’s strength considerably without blocking light.  The verandahs are wide so that even in winter when the sun is lower  it won’t penetrate into the house.  Elsewhere on the building are ‘eyebrows’ to shade windows.  Best of all (though not strictly a design feature) are trees and shrubs next to the building.  Many are deciduous so in summer they are full of leaves when most shade is wanted and in winter the drop their leaves when a bit more warmth is welcome.


Example of roof garden with plants I will also use

A study undertaken by Canadian researchers found that green roof habitats were very effective in reducing a building’s energy demands.   The results show that a conventional roof absorbs solar radiation during the day, creating a high daily energy demand for cooling internal air spaces. In  contrast, the growing medium and plants of a green roof habitat reduce the heat flow through  the roof by providing shading, insulation, and evaporative cooling (shown in green below). It was found that the green roof habitat reduced the daily energy demand for cooling by a whopping 95%!!  (If you’re interested in the tech stuff that’s from 19.3  kWh or 7,080 British Thermal Unit (BTU) per m2 for a building under a conventional roof to 0.9 kWh or 324 BTU per m2 for a building under a green roof habitat). Thermal mass is the term given to material (usually concrete or stone) which will absorb heat and prevent its entry into the home.  Although there are eco-negatives associated with concrete because  of it production processes judicious use can swing its rating into a green category.  In our house concrete (a lot)  has been required to build the base for the roof garden.  Its payoff though is immense at  many levels.  More to follow on the wider range of green roof benefits and how to actually construct your own.


Albizia shading area of roof originally allocated for roof panel

Ensure you plan carefully for the location of your solar panels.  We were quite ignorant of how many we needed (24!) and initially made provision for only 8 on a section that also gets much shade from an ancient and huge Albizia adianthifolia.  Our main roof was pitched – but the wrong way – which has led to delays with approval of plans as we’ve had to switch the pitch direction to accommodate the panels.  In Durban one cannot make changes during the build without the risk of inspectors shutting down construction while you wade through approval bureaucracy so best to get it right up front.  We’ve had expert help from Trevor Wheeler of  http://www.solarsunsa.co.za/  and I strongly advise you get your solar needs properly specified from a specialist before you submit your plans.  More posts to follow on the process of determining what your solar needs are.

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