Sydney’s Grandaddy of Sustainability; his family home, their community and one huge sewerage tank

Chippendale, a quiet inner city Sydney suburb. If you were to go there today, it would be difficult to stretch your imagination back to the turn of the 20th Century, when the overcrowded townhouses were blackened with soot from factories and the treeless streets swarmed with dirty children.  Like most inner city post industrial suburbs Chippendale experienced a wave of gentrification that swept away the grime, fanned fresh air through the newly planted trees and of course, raised house prices astronomically. But Chippendale’s gentrification took a more sustainable turn than most. The streets are now lined with collectively maintained compost bins and community gardens,  food is grown on six blocks, community members have established a local fresh food co-op, the community runs an annual ‘food for the future fair’ and 50% of rainfall is now harvested, stored or absorbed for gardening. ‘The Chippendale project’ as residents call it aims to use the area to create a new design template for Sydney’s roads, one based on sustainable community use of public space. Such initiatives can only be collectively organised, and the residents all deserve recognition for their efforts. But one man’s long term residence in Chippendale has made more than one man’s worth of difference.

Michael Mobbs is known around town as the ‘guy with the sustainable house’. That simple title belies his more complex role as a legal and practical champion of sustainability since the 1970s. Michael is the Principal and Managing Director of Michael Mobbs Sustainable Projects and Design Pty Ltd, has specialised in environmental law and policy for over 19 years, offers consultancy services on urban farming and residential sustainability and currently also teaches sustainable design to engineering students at  the University of Technology, Sydney. He is highly active in the Chippendale community and has played a central role in the suburbs sustainabile initiatives. But it’s the old ‘sustainable house guy’ title that sticks. Mobbs and his wife Heather Armstrong decided in the early 90s that they wanted a house which would:

  • Collect all its drinking water from the roof.
  • Generate all of its electricity from the sun.
  • Process all of its wastewater, including sewage, on site.

To achieve these aims in an inner city townhouse on a block 35m long and 5 metres wide was a tall order. But, with surprisingly few hiccups they managed to succeed. They now save an extra 100 000 litres of dam water, prevent around the same amount of sewage from entering the ocean, generate about 5700 kWh of power and save about 20 tonnes of Co2 from entering the atmosphere every year. They have created a house that serves as an example to all of those city dwellers whose idea of sustainable living is limited to moving onto an organic farm somewhere to sell steroid free eggs for a living.

Their advice on the most important ingredients for success?

  • setting down exactly what you want in the building contracts
  • involving everyone in the design process
  • believing in and wanting what you are doing

For a total cost of $165 000 you certainly can’t be in it for the money. But as an additional note, the sustainable systems themselves only cost $48 000 (the rest was on the accommodating renovations in such an old house), and they now save $1600 per year on bills. According to Mobbs, costs could have been halved if you were integrating the sustainable systems into a new house, rather than renovating around them.

Mobbs and Armstrong and their two kids are happy with their sustainable house and the pretty little community gardens that line their streets. So is the rest of the Chippendale community. So is the rest of Sydney, who get to come and walk through the house by appointment or annually on Sustainable House Day. So is the City of Sydney Council, who use the community as a poster child for their own sustainability agenda.  And if the beautiful bushlands and harbours surrounding Sydney could talk, they’d probably take a second to acknowledge the efforts of this pioneering community and family too. And then they’d tell us to hurry up and get on with the rest of it.  

For more information on the sustainable house follow this link

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