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Tuesday Jun 23, 2015

Green trailblazer wants to motivate others

Environmental activist, facilitator and businesswoman, Jane Troughton, has taken some extraordinary leaps of faith in her passion for green living. It's taught her two important lessons: never give up on your dreams and never let obstacles and setbacks stop you from doing the right thing.

Jane Troughton tending her wall garden.

At a recent public workshop at Durban's Botanical Gardens, she spoke about the evolvement of her "Gorgeous Green House" in Durban North and the setting up of a blog to help would-be developers and home owners to put less pressure on the planet.

"If people can learn the pitfalls and triumphs from my experiences, then I will be happy. The blog covers a diverse range of subjects, from composting to step-by-step installation of an eco-pool, green technologies and building practices and much more."

Last week she invited us to visit her stone-coloured, almost Frank Lloyd Wrightinspired home in Durban North, where everything in this half acre or so property has an unseen label that seems to say "planet Earth first".

Where else, for example, are you going to walk out of your upstairs bedroom into a fully fledged butterfly garden, where aloes send their red spiky flowers skywards, where butterflies are everywhere and indigenous plants grow like crazy in just 10cm of soil?

Where else will you find lush shrubbery outside your bathroom, a vertical wall alive with plants from the area and a multi-tiered garden that produces vegetables and propagates plants and trees that support everything from honey bees to sunbirds?

However, while these outdoor concepts are hugely innovative, it hasn't been all plain sailing, she says. "It shouldn't be that way. Embracing green technologies is certainly achievable with good planning and a lot of imagination. But there are hurdles - plenty of them - along the way."

She accepts that she is something of a trailblazer and that changing from the norm to something more futuristic can pose challenges.

"When features are unusual or not in the building handbook, like substituting rainwater harvesting tanks for storm water/attenuation tanks, the Planning Approval Department gets nervous. We have walked this tricky path for many years and now know that mindsets and traditional practices are difficult to change."

She explains that on this particular issue, when the Planning Approval Department was convinced by Stormwater Management that the water harvesting system with a carefully calculated overflow system and a guaranteed one-way flow of water (ie nothing flowing back into eThekwini systems) would suffice, this element was eventually approved.

It was eight years ago that Jane and her partner, Greg Courtney, bought a fairly pedestrian-looking home in Durban North and decided to turn the whole design on its head.

"It wasn't about destroying what was there," she says. "It was about re-engineering the space and using the original materials for a more modern, eco-friendly feel."

The result is quite amazing. First off you arrive at the front door via a recycled plastic composite pathway spanning a fish pond packed with indigenous Tilapia fish, the waste of which provides the nutrition for the vertical garden.

The interior is modern, vibrantly colourful, even edgy. But it is not the interior of the home that makes her excited. It's the outside. It is the deep pit where a "Meccano-like" system of modules receive, store and aerate the rain water. It is filtered several times, pumped back into the house and used for all purposes including drinking. The shower and washing machine water is then plumbed out of the house through a magic green box in the garden, which takes this "grey" water for irrigation.

"A truly sustainable double use of the rain," she says. "What a pity most of us send our rainwater down drains and then spend a fortune buying water from the city. It doesn't really make sense."

On the roof of the couple's home are 20 solar panels. The solar system includes inverters and batteries, which supply all the electricity needs of the family.

"We currently generate more electricity than we use. However, we decided to install a system that was tied into eThekwini rather than an offgrid system. We saw the opportunity to lobby the city to set up systems to pay residents for their excess electricity, which we are still doing."

This practice, she says, has been standard in many countries for decades. There are also successful pilot projects in other SA cities.

"We know that if we could get that happening, more people would be motivated to invest in solar systems as the return on investment would be much quicker."

In the meantime, they are oblivious of load shedding and sleep well at night knowing their electricity needs are being met at no cost to the planet.

Sunday Tribune

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