A new project proves what’s possible with local knowledge.
KENNY and Tammy live on Ballarat’s eastern edge. They cultivate a veggie patch, keep chickens, geese, quail and bees, and stay comfortable in their super-insulating straw bale home. If that weren’t enough, Kenny has designed and built an aquaponics system, which grows fish and veggies together.
They’ve got knowledge and experiences to share, but how?
The couple’s story is now part of the Smart Living Ballarat project. Since February, dozens of volunteers have been staffing a shopfront stocked with the expertise of locals who’ve reduced their environmental impact and improved their quality of life.
The information covers five themes: home energy, water, food, transport and local environment. There are displays on each of them, covering insulation, lighting, flooring, paint, glazing and furniture, among others. There’s a model of a passive solar house designed for the region, and directories for local food suppliers, building expertise and materials.
All the information is replicated on the Smart Living Ballarat website, and there are regular events and workshops in the space, from bike maintenance and solar hot water to LED lighting and permaculture.
The project was conceived in 2009, at a time when the drought had completely dried out Lake Wendouree, the large artificial lake to the city’s west. Household water restrictions were set at Stage 4.
Local environment group Ballarat Renewable Energy and Zero Emissions – one of the centre’s partners – wrote that there was “strong scientific evidence that climate change is directly affecting the Ballarat region”, with warmer and drier conditions and long-term predictions for more hot days.
“Climate change was starting to affect our community very personally,” explains Sophie Akers, the centre’s project manager.
“A lot of people got their heads together and wanted to create a place where we could engage our community in an independent, non-commercial, non-government way, and to have a place where we could talk about sustainable living.
“It was clear that we needed to offer something in all aspects of a household – everything from the natural environment through to transport, the built environment to the food we eat.”
The centre itself offers a working model. It’s housed at the front of the city’s old Mining Exchange building, which opened in 1889 and fast became one of the world’s busiest stock exchanges. But within a few decades it had shut down and the last gold mines were closed.
This time, behind its tall, arched windows, the volunteers are building another kind of wealth, one that consciously aims to avoid the boom and bust cycle.
Part of the project’s funding from Sustainability Victoria was dedicated to retrofitting the shop with the kinds of energy-saving techniques that would be on display. A solar photovoltaic system was installed on the roof and it produces much more electricity than the centre uses.
Above all, however, the local stories and expertise are crucial to the project’s approach, both in the shopfront and on its website. Ms Akers says it’s always influential for visitors to see close-to-home, real-life examples.
“People can talk local to local, and see what’s happening around town,” she says. “They can even go out to people’s places and see what they’re doing.
“In regional areas especially, it’s essential that people get to see those local stories. Our communities really look to each other for help, learning, support, and leadership.”