A ‘RetroSuburban’ Case Study of our suburban patch.

lush frontOver the past month I’ve been digging deeply into David Holmgren’s recently released book, ‘RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future‘. The book is based on the premise that for most households, making the most productive use of a promising suburban block is a more realistic way to apply permaculture principles than moving to acreage in the country. It features a ‘RetroSuburban Real Estate Checklist‘ (follow link for spreadsheet) to assess a property’s fitness for sustainability – and a series of real-life examples, also included on this page of the website.

east sideI’m using the book and the checklist to help structure a review of how our property retrofit has come along over the past 10 years and where we could take it from here. Making our progress quantifiable allows for comparison with the properties featured in the book so that we can gauge how we’re going a little more objectively. This month, my case study takes the place of the usual monthly garden guide (so please search the archive if you’re wondering what to plant and what garden jobs to do in April). If you’re thinking more broadly and long-term, read on 🙂

Andrew and I will also be speaking briefly about our retrofit process this Thursday evening (April 5) at the Joinery’s community dinner and film night featuring the documentary ‘Living the Change‘ – follow the link for details and tickets.

SPOILER ALERT! Here’s how our place lined up against the case studies in the book. The checklist assesses property features so as to deliver a point value that equates to a rating (on a scale of 1 to 7 ‘suns’ – a bit like a star rating* for house or appliance energy use, but taking into account many more dimensions of sustainability than energy use). Our place started out scoring 3 ‘suns’ in 2008 and is currently sitting at 5 suns. With some more substantial work we can get it to 6 retrosuburban ‘suns’, but in order to reach the maximum of 7 we’d need to either move to a climate with more rainfall or buy a bigger place, neither of which suit us in the foreseeable future. Our current rating and our progress from how it started out put us about in the middle of the range of case studies featured in the book – but you can see even more case studies here.

*  (For interest, our house was initially assessed as only 2 stars on standard house energy rating software – typical for its era – and would now score 5 stars, with potential to reach 6 with some further minor upgrades.) 


Our family and home – a timeline

In 2008, Andrew and I were living in a rented house with 2 chooks, 4 fruit trees and a veg patch. I was pregnant. We were both working full time in private companies. We had each completed Permaculture Design Certificate courses in the past few years. And we were on the lookout for a place of our own.

By early 2009 we’d bought a house and had a baby: 2 adults and a baby in a small house (98m2) on a small block (462m2). We were shaken by a shocking 2-week heatwave in which our chooks died. We had no fruit trees, no home-grown veg, just an overgrown dead lawn. But we had a clear project: to retrofit our 1950 house & garden for sustainable living, raising the next generation and ageing in place. And the added purpose of our place was to be a demonstration site for passive solar design, active transport, food gardening, and anything else we could do to live a resilient life.

aerialFast forward to 2018: We are now 2 adults (1 still in full-time work off site and 1 working from home), 1 child, 3 chooks, 2 beehives and a cat, 40+ fruit trees & vines, veg beds, verge garden, outdoor living with pizza oven and vertical garden, bike shed, toolshed, garden shed… 1 small car, 2 cargo bikes (1 electric), 1 kid bike, a Grow Free cart, and now with our two mums living just a few minutes away.

Projecting ahead to 2028: We could be… a family of 3 adults in a house with a loft extension, 1-2 WWOOFers / boarders as needed, 6 chooks, 2 beehives and an old cat, 50 fruit trees, more veg beds, a thriving railway verge community garden, a strong cycling community and a repair cafĂ© up the street!


Above is a snapshot of what’s happened on the outside. But why did we choose this – er – rather plain and unloved home in the first place? It was a far cry from the heritage villa on a large block in an inner-city leafy street where we had been renting! Because… we could afford it, and it met our most important criteria:

  • Close to work, school, and shops
  • Convenient for access to public transport & cycling
  • On a corner block facing north and east (favourable garden aspect and living areas aligned for passive solar design)
  • Manageable but not too small (house could be extendable)
  • Free of big overshadowing trees to compete with the garden and PV, and well clear of bushfire risk.

RetroSuburbia is organised into three fields of permaculture action: the Built, the Biological and the Behavioural.


  • THE BUILT FIELD – Location, Services & Property, Resilience Assets & Retrofit potential
  • THE BIOLOGICAL FIELD – Climate, Soil & Garden assets
  • THE BEHAVIOURAL FIELD – Who you live with and what you do together:  Household, Habits, Transport, Livelihood, Health care, Parenting, Education & Planning…

The real estate checklist deals with the first two of these but here’s a summary of our response to all three.

Built field:

  • Insulated walls
  • Shaded with pergolas & vines
  • Added solar appliances: hot water, PV & space heating
  • Replaced solid front fence with permeable fence for winter sun & interaction
  • Added sheds (tools, bikes, garden)
  • Added rainwater tanks, pump, drip irrigation system
  • Built chook house
  • Renovated kitchen, laundry, dining & improved storage
  • Plumbing, IT & electrical appliance upgrades
  • Replaced halogen with LED lights
  • Cubby house
  • Wood oven/outdoor kitchen basics

Biological field:

  • Sheet mulched lawns
  • Added manure, compost, soil minerals
  • Removed 2 problem trees and planted 40+ fruit trees & vines
  • Planted road verge (natives, herbs & fruit)
  • Built vegetable beds
  • Built vertical garden (ornamentals, cooling the outdoor living area)
  • 3 chooks: eggs, manure for compost
  • 2 beehives: honey, wax, pollination
  • Worm farm (sometimes!)
  • Cleared most weeds & invasive grasses
  • Created a more protected microclimate
  • Started a garden ecosystem that continues to develop itself

Behavioural field:

  • Became a family
  • Created a working-from-home business
  • Joined the local community market
  • Brought our mothers to live near us – mutual support
  • Initiated garden-focused community activities
  • Minimised food miles and car km by growing a lot of our own food, sharing and swapping, and walking and cycling where possible.
  • Promoted cycle commuting and electric/cargo bikes
  • Ate mostly organic and locally grown food
  • Engaged with local councils & community organisations to help green the suburbs & support sustainable living…

So the changes in the Built and Biological fields bring us from 3 suns to 5 suns so far, and the gaps in the checklist focus our planning around what else we’d like to do in the next 10 years, with the major steps summarised below. Some of these are new while others involve reviving or refining our past practices. These steps would take us into the 6-sun range on the 7-sun scale for the checklist.

what to do next

IMG_20180307_105233.jpgWorking through the checklist has been a thoroughly encouraging process – and has clarified what we really need to do next and also what we need to learn more about. The checklist works best with the whole book to refer to, and I completed my ‘before and after’ tallies on photocopied pages from the book – but the spreadsheet could be a more convenient format for recording a baseline measure and updating as you implement changes. The book is also an invaluable resource, particularly for those of us in southern Australia, that will inform my garden consultation and design work from here on.

RetroSuburbia is available direct from the (home) publisher, Melliodora, and from all good bookshops & permie organisations, with substantial discounts for bulk orders, so it’s worth getting together with a group of friends to place an order. A detailed book review by Milkwood appears here. David Holmgren will be appearing at the Joinery for the book’s Adelaide launch on April 27th while visiting SA to teach on the Food Forest‘s next Permaculture Design Certificate course. Enjoy!

book launh

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