How Ken and Carol Built a Sustainable Home in the Blue Mountains

Carol and Ken’s home in Leura takes advantage of, and protects, the natural landscape. (Photo: Brett Boardman)

Story by Linda Moon

Ken and Carol’s home in Leura offers insights into sustainable building design we can all take inspiration from.


Key Points:

  • Most Blue Mountains homes aren’t built for the local environment.
  • Sustainable housing is more than solar panels and water tanks. 
  • By understanding and working with nature we can reduce energy costs and help the environment.

Perched on the hillside, a slate-coloured building blends into the landscape. There are no signs of a concrete drive, garage or fencing: those Aussie architectural mainstays. Instead, a mulched path meanders through conifer trees.

This isn’t your average property. Designed by architects Ken Yeh and Carol Marra (the multi-awarded Marra + Yeh), it has a lot to teach us about how to design alongside nature, for the planet and ourselves. It’s a journey so many of us are interested in.

Building with the environment in mind

The duo studied architecture at the University of Texas (where they met).

Ken:

Ken grew up around the tropical jungles of Malaysia and is both tutor and guest critic at the University of Sydney and UNSW. “I have a benchmark in my head of how things should be in a mature and stable eco-system. It’s a feeling. You go into a pristine place; all your senses can tell you. You can hear it; you can feel it.” His goal in designing is to try to discover what a place was originally like, then how to enhance it.

Carol:

Carol, who is originally from Argentina, also has a deep understanding of place. She also tutors and is a guest critic at the University of Sydney and UNSW. Carol says sustainable, ecological design (which the pair specialise in) starts with considering everything outside your piece of land and thinking holistically. “Across the street from us is a creek. We understand what happens here affects the waterway and the animals that drink it. So, it’s big picture thinking,” she says.

It’s also about making buildings that can survive the changing climate conditions, plus respond to the energy crisis.

window ventilation

Two windows promote cross ventilation and natural sunlight while storage is a must. (Photo: Brett Boardman)

The house that Ken and Carol built 

Elevated above a hanging swamp, the home’s design allows water to seep unimpeded down into the creek.

Caring for the land flows both ways. By not blocking the water’s path they avoid flooding and dampness, Carol says. Another perk: the relaxing sound of running water.   

Inside, things are equally interesting. In the ‘mud-room’, as they call their entry, there’s a bench, washing machine, clothing rack and fridge. Here, dirty and wet clothing are discarded and shoes exchanged for slippers. It turns out the freezer is located here to reduce energy use: it’s the coldest zone of the house.

Sustainable architects Ken Yeh and Carol Marra at home

Sustainable architects Ken Yeh and Carol Marra at home. (Photo: Linda Moon)

Beyond solar panels and tanks

“Sustainable design is not just about adding on; it’s not just about buying solar panels,” Carol emphasises.

Our starting point should be to make use of everything nature gives us for free, Ken says. This includes sunshine (warmth), breezes (which cool), soil (for creating gardens) and water.

Every part of the building is planned consciously. Bedrooms are located on the south (least sunny side) of the building. “Sleeping in a cold room is better for you,” Carol says. And, being further from the road, it’s also quieter.

The bathroom is designed for multiple use with separate compartments for hand-basin, toilet and showering. The latter includes an adjustable-size wooden Japanese bathtub (designed by the pair) and an expansive window that looks out onto 3D art courtesy of nature: trees, occasional wallabies and birds. 

Bathing with the window open allows airflow to remove humidity and condensation. 

“You need to identify the gifts [of nature] and accept them humbly.” – Ken Yeh.

an eco friendly blue mountains house

Large north-facing, double-glazed windows harness the sun’s heat and light. (Photo: Brett Boardman)

Passive design

Designing with your local climate in mind is known as passive design’. Some understanding around science, like wind direction and the sun’s angle, helps here, Carol adds.

To capture free heat from the sun, the main living zones are situated in the north. Large, double-glazed, north facing windows allow sunlight to penetrate deep into the rooms. On sunny days these don’t require artificial heating, which equals lower energy costs and CO2 emissions.

When it’s hot they open the windows to the breeze or use blinds to block the sun. “It’s a way of calibrating your building to what’s happening outside,” Ken says. 

The rooms are also designed to be compartmentalised to keep the heat in. “In winter you create smaller spaces; in summer bigger spaces,” Carol says. “You live in nature.”

The living area opens up to an outdoor space with a kitchen and insect-proof screens that allow them to take advantage of any cooling breezes on hot summer nights.

In the mountains most winds come from the west. Thus, the house has few windows facing west.

“Look at nature first. The water flows under, the wind flows over.” – Ken Yeh.

indoors and outdoors blend seamlessly thanks to clever use of glass

Space for a wok BBQ. The indoors and outdoors blend seamlessly thanks to clever use of glass and almost invisible insect screens. (Photo: Brett Boardman)

Designing for flexibility and change

Other important features of the home include built-in storage cupboards and enormous doors between several rooms. This allows for flexibility. Rooms can be opened up to become bigger or used for a different purpose.

It’s about designing alongside time, Ken says. How we work and study, for instance, has changed; the composition of families changes, Carol says. The ability to enable change without too much pain adds value to a building.

Large doors allow spaces to be merged, enlarged and compartmentalised.

Large doors allow spaces to be merged, enlarged and compartmentalised. (Photo: Brett Boardman)

Challenges for mountains homes

Unfortunately, few buildings in the Blue Mountains (or beyond) are designed sustainably.

“It’s a very extreme climate and we don’t make people design for this in our policies,” Carol says. The result is that many of us suffer in cold homes inappropriate for the climate with the knock-on of high heating bills. It’s a housing legacy we continue to pass onto the next generation, Carol says.

Other big challenges facing our housing (and thus our wellbeing) are affordability and lack of suitability. “The marketplace tends to cater for two types of homes: low-density, single-family dwellings and high-density apartments,” Carol says.

Housing, like nature, needs to be biodiverse. This means having housing styles that cater to extended families, older people and others.

Retrofitting your home

Integrating where we live with nature is something we can all do, Carol says. “We have a lot of opportunities to change things and do things better.”

As a starting point, they recommend focusing on the skin of your building with insulation, sealing and draught proofing. Improve the performance of any poor-quality windows. If you can, create an enlarged, double-glazed window in the north of your home.

This way you won’t need as many solar panels. “It’s like putting a jacket on before you blast the heater,” Carol says.

“You can do something at any scale that’s positive and impactful” – Carol Marra.

a sustainable home in the blue mountains

Harmonious exterior of the home office. Minimal impact upon and maximum gain from the environment. (Photo: Brett Boardman)


Take Action:

  • Make your home more water and energy efficient.
  • Protect and enhance the landscape around you.
  • Integrate nature’s gifts into your home.

Share this article:


This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

Planetary Health Initiative partners

More from around the region

Read more about these biscuit tin guitars and the @glenbrookrotarymarkets in Lower Mountains Local News (link in profile):https://lowermtnslocalnews.com/glenbrook-rotary-markets/

Music, creativity and sustainability all come together at Glenbrook Rotary Markets every 1st and 3rd Saturday of the month, and recently the organisers from the @rotary_club_lower_blue_mtns showcased their continuing commitment to waste reduction by hosting a creative Trash to Treasure Competition for local Lower Mountains kids. #recycling #upcycling #biscuittin #biscuittinguitars #markets #glenbrook #guitarsofinstagram
...

A Little Old, A Little New: Revisiting RoseyRavelston Bookstore

Second-hand bookstore and social enterprise @roseyravelstonbooks has moved to Lawson-town. While the core of their social enterprise remains the same(supporting refugees), the move has prompted adaptation and diversification, which has opened up new collaborations and opportunities for the business and the community. Read more in Mid Mountains Local News (link in profile): https://www.midmtnslocalnews.com/rosey-ravelston-lawson/

#bookstore #refugees #lyttleton #gnocchi #music #communityhub #freshproduce #lawson #bluemountains #communityconnection #planetaryhealth
...

RoseyRavelston Bookshop and social enterprise has moved to Lawson where it`s become a welcoming community hub! Read more in Mid Mountains Local News (link in profile) #bookstore #socialenterprise #lawson #bluemountains #connection #gnocchi #livemusic #planetaryhealth ...

Every week the children at Carinya Neighbourhood Children`s Centre in Springwood spend time in neighbouring bushland as part of their Bush Preschool program. Read more in Springwood Area Local News (link in profile) #bushpreschool #natureconnection #natureplay #springwood #planeataryhealth ...

Bush Preschool is an international programme which encourages young children to actively engage in the natural environment, rather than just ‘be outdoors.’ Carinya Neighbourhood Children`s Centre in Springwood has embraced the idea, taking their pre-schoolers, babies and toddlers out on regular bush excursions to encourage our next generations to learn about sustainability and the importance of caring for our environment. Read more in Springwood Area Local News (link in profile): https://springwoodlocalnews.com/carinya-bush-preschool/
#bushpreschool #natureplay #natureconnection #rewilding #childcareadventures #springwood #carinya #planetaryhealth #sustainability #wearenature
...

When it`s cold and wet it`s so easy to forget what it was like to live in a `Time of Fire`. This is a powerful performance by Harry Laing at the Blue Mountains Planetary Health Studio: not only reminding us what a severe fire season is like, but helping us see the whole experience in a different way. View the full video on our YouTube channel (link in profile) #bushfire #poetry #planetaryhealth ...

Shaun Watson is the NSW Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia @doctorsfortheenvironment At his home-away-from-home in the Kanimbla Valley, he talks about his motivation to fight for the planet, the health impacts of fossil fuels and simple things we can do to make a difference. Read more in Blackheath Area Local News (link in profile): https://blackheathnews.com/doctors-for-the-environment-and-planetary-health/

#theinterconnectednessofallthings #humanhealthandclimateaction #wearenature #togetherwecan #planetaryhealth #doctorsfortheenvironment
...

Volunteering has been experiencing a gradual long-term decline but community needs are higher than ever. The volunteers we’ve interviewed over the last 15 months have all felt that their lives were richer as a result of their volunteering experience, so we’ve compiled a list of volunteering opportunities in the Upper Mountains which can help strengthen our community while also providing volunteers with skills for the workforce, new friends and social connections. Read more in Katoomba Area Local News (link in profile): https://www.katoombalocalnews.com/volunteering-blue-mountains/
#community #allinthistogether #togetherwecan #volunteering #volunteeringisfun #givebacktothecommunity #connection #planetaryhealth
...

Our latest newsletter has information about the Planetary Health Bushcare Group starting on 6 July, other volunteering opportunities in the Upper Mountains, Doctors for the Environment, a Bush Preschool, RosyRavelston Bookstore, the Glenbrook Rotary Markets, and an innovative energy monitoring project to help residents save money and energy this winter.

You can subscribe to receive our fortnightly newsletter and read it now via the links in our profile: https://bit.ly/4bRRDza

@doctorsfortheenvironment @glenbrookrotarymarkets @lithgowtransformationhub @roseyravelstonbooks #bushpreschool #natureconnection #bushcare #bushcarebluemountains #bluemountains #thinkglobalactlocal #togetherwecan #planetaryhealth #volunteer #lovevolunteering
...

Led by First Nations students and community, Blaxland High School has established a native food garden and students are using crops grown in the garden as ingredients in food technology classes. The school received injections of expertise from many quarters including an Aboriginal-owned social enterprise to learn about and embrace the use of native plants for cooking and sustainability. Read more in Lower Mountains Local News (link in profile):
https://lowermtnslocalnews.com/blaxland-high-native-garden/ @bush_to_bowl @foodfuturescompany #nativefoodgarden #indigenousfood #firstnationsfood #firstnations #blaxland #lowermountains #planetaryhealth
...

About Linda Moon

Linda Moon has lived in the upper Blue Mountains since childhood and is a freelance writer for Australian media. A qualified naturopath, permaculture designer, mother and former student of social work, her passion is building local community, gardening, mental, emotional, social, housing and environmental health – all of which are linked!

You might also like:

sal isaksen at salon katoomba

Sal-On: Katoomba’s Sustainable Fashion Icon

Sal Isaksen, owner of Sal-On in Katoomba, is making a stand against fast fashion and its environmental impacts. Visit her store and hear her story in this piece by volunteer writer Camille Walsh.

error

Enjoyed this article? Please help spread the word :)