Tough economic times and eco-awareness are a perfect match. The time is ripe to build it, bake it or fix it. Michael Green reports.
SAMUEL Alexander is living the simple life. Last year, he built a rough shelter, two metres by three metres, in the backyard of a Melbourne home. Now he lives in it.
A self-confessed “bookish lawyer”, the 29-year-old doctoral student and building novice constructed his modest hut entirely from materials he found or bought from op shops. “If people put their minds to things like waste and reuse, whole avenues open up that aren’t on offer when you just go to the shop,” he says.
Hut-building might not be for everyone, but with economic doom and gloom here for the duration, what better time for recrafting old goods into new? Cutting your costs goes hammer-in-hand with DIY know-how.
Reuse isn’t only penny-pinching. It was a prominent theme at the recent Sustainable Living Festival, held in Federation Square, where more than 130,000 people showed up.
Speaker Paul Wildman has spent years studying and working with bush mechanics, calling them “our greatest national secret and treasure”. Dr Wildman says bush mechanics are fixers and tinkerers, people with practical skills that “provide joined-up solutions in complex situations”.
The tradition comes from both indigenous cultures and European settlers who had to solve their problems with whatever was available. “Bushies are into reuse, repair and refocus,” he says. Activities need not be limited to plumbing or machinery. It can also mean things like keeping chooks, building a bench or sewing a dress.
Dr Wildman laments that such “hand knowledge” is disappearing over successive generations, thanks to our apparent material plenty and too much focus on the academic side of education. Aside from losing skills, he says we’re also missing out on a way of learning that combines doing and thinking. “Einstein was a bush mechanic. There are half a dozen Nobel Prize winners who were hobby scientists.
“The best thing is for people to do something tonight with their hands. It might be cooking a meal, planting a window pot or fixing something with wire. But actually start bringing those practical things into their lives and celebrating it.”
Just as important, he argues, is sharing your newfound knowledge with family and friends, and encouraging kids to pursue hands-on learning. It’s all a crucial part of the bigger picture. “Reusing and repairing also links into saving the environment and (dealing with) the global economic problem.”
And the world’s current problems might be propelling bush skills back into the mainstream. At the University of Melbourne this summer, architecture students took Trash + Treasure, a one-month intensive course requiring them to transform waste into furniture. Using cast-offs such as scrap metal, soft drink bottles or old plastic garden pots, the students designed and built lights, seats, workbenches and shelters.
Co-ordinator Peter Raisbeck says the time is right for such an innovative course. “We’re focusing more and more on issues of sustainability and what we may need to do as architects in the future,” Dr Raisbeck says. “It’s very important (for the students) to think about these issues … it does get them to radically rethink our consumer culture, by engaging with waste and trash.”
The results were surprising for student Tim Cameron. The 22-year-old had to assess the waste produced by his own lifestyle. “It was shocking, seeing … all the different sorts of waste that you don’t really think about,” he says.
He was also surprised by the inventiveness of his classmates and the pleasure of putting his ideas into practice. “You get to the end of the day and you’re sweating and dirty from all the sawdust. I’ve learnt a lot. It’s got me thinking about how I’ll take on projects in the future.”
Such thrifty reuse of resources fits perfectly for Samuel Alexander, the lawyer-cum-hut builder. He has just edited a collection of writing about voluntary simplicity, the idea that very little is needed in order to live well. “Perhaps there are times when we get richer and it actually decreases our quality of life,” he suggests, citing stress and long working hours as evidence.
As economic troubles force us to reassess our spending habits, he argues that getting by with less can mean more time and energy to pursue what really inspires us.
“Abundance is a state of mind,” he says, “not a quantity of consumer goods.”
Thanks to the Internet, there’s no need to wait for your dream hammock to materialise in the neighbour’s hard rubbish collection. The step-by-step instructions are all online and you can make it on the cheap.
Try US websites ReadyMade, Instructables or Crafting a Green World. You’ll find everything from reupholstering old dining chairs and repurposing derelict computers, to building Hungarian shelves and crafting a stylish clock using chopsticks and a paper plate.