At almost 80 years of age, Lorraine Hughes is possibly the most mature sustainable home owner featured on this website. The energy efficiency pioneer, who was enjoying solar power long before it became mainstream, has become an environmental educator in her later years.
Lorraine Hughes started planning her ‘retirement’ home before the GST came in, and started building while the HIH Insurance crisis was at its peak.
Thankfully, while both issues were headline news in the early noughties, neither of them had a major impact on Lorraine’s plans to create a sustainable grid-connect home in the suburb of Knox in Melbourne’s east.
Her home design was inspired by Sydney-based sustainability advocate Michael Mobbs, however Lorraine also credits a thrifty upbringing for her chosen way of life.
“My parents were quite poor, so everything we had was well looked after,” explains Lorraine. “My parents were wonderful recyclers; they repaired broken tools, grew fruit, bottled jam and so forth.”
A spell working overseas in Nigeria and Papua New Guinea in her 20’s also gave Lorraine an insight into exactly how much we need to live happily.
“I accommodated to the way of life in those countries. I had to boil drinking water and had an old solar hot water tank that didn’t work on rainy days, so I boiled bathing water as well.”
“When I returned to Australia, I had read and accepted the science of climate change, so I was always careful with water and electricity,” she says. “Years later, I decided to build my retirement home with as many sustainable features as possible.”
The small 538 square metre block in suburban Knox was chosen for it’s orientation and it’s proximity to a large shopping centre and public transport in preparation for a time when Lorraine might not be able to drive confidently any more.
Featuring an open plan design with thermal mass, ventilation and recycled building products to reduced embodied energy, Lorraine’s house was completed in 2002, with a 4.4kW solar system and a set of Sonnenschein gel batteries, chosen for low embodied energy.
Lorraine has also created a garden using coconut fibre for mulching, with Australian natives and other drought tolerant plants.
However, the best feature of the home is the impressive grey water treatment system that Lorraine often tinkers with.
“The block is plumbed to South East Water, but I collect rainwater from the roof so never draw from the utility,” Lorraine explains. “I also treat grey water through a peat system (Aquablock Biofilter), the first goes through a pair of old pantyhose to collect the fluffy bits that come from the washing machine.”
“It’s then pumped through a tank, is aerated, then used for toilet flushing and irrigation; I save about 30% of the water that I use.”
A chance meeting with a university lecturer at a local festival, combined with an ongoing desire to improve her home, led to Lorraine enrolling at Swinburne University to study renewable energy and energy efficient building design.
“I hadn’t been to school for over 50 years, but my lecturer was confident that my life experience would help me through the subjects!”
“I’d retired by then, so bought my first computer and learned how to measure temperatures in my home and create a heat transfer graph; I thought ‘gosh, I can’t do this’, but I could and I was tickled pink!”
The student then became the teacher as Lorraine was asked to run sessions for the University of the Third Age on sustainability.
“I’m talking to people who’re retired and want to put solar panels on their home, but I tell them they need to find where the air leaks are and where extra insulation could be installed.”
“As a self funded retiree on a fixed income it makes sense for me to make this house energy efficient so my running costs are low.”
As for her plans in her 80th year, Lorraine says she’d like to increase her battery bank size and purchase an electric vehicle, but says she’ll see how things go.
“I’m at the end of my life and I hope I’ve made up for the greenhouse gases I caused when I was younger,” she explains. “I like the idea that soon I’ll be compost but my solar panels will still be creating clean green energy!”
Emma Sutcliffe is a journalist, climate activist & proud owner of an off-grid property in Little River, near Melbourne. As Contributing Editor to One Step Off The Grid she meets other off-gridders, a job that makes use of her considerable skills for nattering & drinking tea. If you’d like to share your story, she’d love to hear from you.