Speech by Cath Webb, for the opening of the Strine Solstice House
21st June, 2015.
I first started planning what to say today on Tuesday –the first of three days of overcast and rain. I mention this, because it was a clear reminder of what it is like to NOT live in a Strine house as I was sitting in front of a heater, all day. This now feels like failure to me, because we have very rarely had to turn a heater on during the day, for the last three years, since we moved in to our Strine house.
This week reminded me of why we decided to build the Strine house in the first place. We were living in a well renovated 1950s weatherboard. And although it was nice to look at, it was never warm, from April to September. The rest of the time it was blisteringly hot. Like a lot of Canberra houses, in winter it was often warmer outside than in it. You could be in the lounge room at night with the heater on, and still need a blanket. But that was not too bad compared to when you opened the door to the rest of the house because that was like walking into a wall of cold. The cold in the back of the house had a physical presence. We tried to fix some of the more obvious problems, because sometimes you could actually hear the draughts whistling, but to insulate the walls we would have had to take off all the weatherboards. We couldn’t insulate under the floor because the crawl space was too small. We were sick of pouring heat, and therefore money off into the air. And because of the zoning it was not worth fixing, so we began what became a very long journey.
In hindsight we made it harder for ourselves because we were initially deluded. We thought that between when our old house was built in the 50’s and the mid 2000’s, building standards would have improved, and we would find a warm, perfect house in our suburb. No. But it took us a year or so of looking most weekends to realise there was no perfect house. There was not even a good compromise house. We learned a lot. Almost all houses face the street regardless of orientation of the block to the north. Lots of houses have tiny or no windows to the north. Lots of houses have huge windows that face west or south. We had bemused looks from real estate agents when we asked if they knew which way north was. We gradually realised that if we want to stay in the area that we liked and close to the facilities we wanted, we were going to have to… build.
We remembered we had seen years ago a Strine display home in Narrabundah, and so we went to Strine. Our brief to Ric – pretty much the only thing we said – at least at first – was that we wanted to be warm. We said we thought there were new ways of building that could make the house warm itself. We had read of such things, and had watched Grand Designs, but had not really seen it in practice. Ric assured us this was so. And so we went to our second Strine house to have a look. The jumper I had on that day was barely sufficient for our old house, with the heater on. I walked into the Strine house and immediately took it off, because the house was WARM. Shirtsleeves warm. When we got back in our car I said ‘I want that house’.
And so, we have our house.
When the house was completed and we had the keys, the first thing that was moved was the piano. It was 7 o’clock in the morning in August, 2012, and the overnight temperature had been -7. It was still really cold. But we opened the door of the new house and even without blinds, it was much warmer in there. The young bloke driving the van chided me gently. “You know,” he said, “it’s a waste of electricity to keep the heating on when you are not here”. “There is no heating on” I replied, kindly, and he looked at me utterly bemused, “there must be heating. It is warm.” I had clearly taken leave of my senses. “The sun did it”, I told him. “The sun heated the floor and the walls yesterday, and they held the heat overnight, so it is warm.” A couple of days later I had the same conversation with the bloke who came to fit the blinds. I find I say this often. There is very rarely any heating on in our house. Most people who come to our house in winter make a comment about the warmth.
To be honest, I suspect I now sound a little smug when I talk about it. And I suspect there are people who still don’t believe me when I say there is very little heating.
So, what has it been like to live in a Strine house the last three years? It has been WARM. The house is always warmer inside than outside in winter, and mostly cooler than outside in summer. We have very little built in heating, just some underfloor in the bathrooms on a timer. We have no cooling except ceiling fans. We rarely have to heat upstairs, and a small heater keeps us warm downstairs in the evenings when the sun has not quite done the whole job. We have no electric blankets. We don’t have massive piles of doonas any more. And even on the worst series of cloudy days we have never walked into the ‘wall of cold’ that used to be a daily experience at our old house.
A downside has been we sometimes go out in the winter with not enough clothing, because we have not realised how cold the wind is even though it is sunny.
There are some other benefits to living in a Strine house. I think we are less sick. We seem to have fewer colds. Our daughter’s eczema has improved. I work from home and I think I am more productive. Well I certainly type better without fingerless gloves. We also find the hayfever season easier to manage, as the house seals well and the pollens stay outside. And obviously we spend less money on energy use.
In short, one of the best things we ever did was to build our Strine house. I was going to put into my talk some learned quotes from Frank Lloyd Wright and Robin Boyd, both well known architects and writers, about living within and adapting to your environment, but I decided I didn’t need to add academic weight to the discussion, because if you live in Canberra really the only thing I need to tell you is that we are warm, all winter, from the sun, in our Strine house.