Our weekend with Pat and Mandy has been an amazing introduction to their grand plans for establishing a sustainable home. The Downers are passionate about natural materials, organic food and self-sufficiency, and we’ve learned a lot from our time with them.

Pat, Mandy, Shasa and Tierra Downer, April 2011
We've discovered that the Downers are a truly special family. Their land — the top of Shepherd's Peak — is in the distance behind them in this picture.

Today, the Downers took us up to their own farm — the 300-acre block that borders their current home — and shared their vision with us for the future. It’s been fascinating to see how they’ve started on many aspects of construction and sustainable farming practices.

Pat and Mandy always have farmwork to do, and we were glad to help them harvest pumpkins and potatoes. While we were harvesting vegetables, Uncle played with the children under a tree nearby. For the most part, the girls kept each other amused, meaning that we could work longer and harder than if the Downers had been by themselves.

Pat is very knowledgeable about many agricultural practices as well as the local wildlife. He learned many things from his father, and I’m certain he’ll pass on this knowledge to his own children as they grow up.

The Downers' farm at Shepherd's Peak, April 2011
For the past couple of years, the Downers have been planting this plot of land with vegetables. Today we harvested pumpkins, potatoes, courgettes and squash.

Digging potatoes, April 2011
It is a new skill for us to learn — digging potatoes. You have to position the fork in the right place to bring up the potatoes without actually going through the vegetables. Aisha and the other kids helped with carrying the spuds to the trays.

Keruru, NZ wood pigeon, April 2011
At the farm, we spotted a pair of rare kererus — New Zealand wood pigeons.

The Downers have already done a lot of hard work to their property — setting up irrigation systems and gardens as well as starting the main constuction of the shed, the house and outbuildings.

As they showed us around, Pat and Mandy spoke about their vision for the property. They’re establishing organic gardens in what used to be grazing pasture and are letting huge swathes of the rest of the pasture return to native bush. They want to encourage the return of native birds and plants.

Pat is passionate about native timbers which are naturally pest-resistant and don’t require treatments with arsenic before use in construction. Inspired by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, Pat plans to construct their home out of ferrous cement and shape it into a series of confronting curves.

The Downers are using local materials, especially native timber, in their construction. Even though it costs more and takes longer to amass the products, they’re not willing to compromise their values in their goal of a sustainable home.

Downers' smokehouse, April 2011
One of the finished projects on the farm is the smokehouse. It is a prototype of the construction style the Downers will use on the other buildings and is being used as cool storage for root vegetables.

Concrete rendering wall, April 2011
The concrete mixture is troweled against the reinforcing wire to make a wall.

Glass bottles embedded in the wall, April 2011
Glass bottles are embedded into the wall — providing coloured light as well as insulation.

Downers' housesite, April 2011
At the Downers' housesite, the first roof-curve mould is in place, waiting for the ferro-cement to be placed over the top of it.

Playing at the Downers' housesite, April 2011
Together, the girls worked out a game at the housesite, sliding down the curves of another roof-mould.

The Downers have been able to learn a lot from the home they’re currently living in. This dwelling is the second house built by Murray the owner, so it’s an improved model. It uses hydro-electricity from the nearby creek, a wood-fire stove and relies on the natural insulation of the thick mud-brick walls. This house also has a composting toilet to deal with waste. The Downers plan to install the same system in their new house when it reaches that stage.

Composting toilet, April 2011
The composting toilet can look very much like a standard toilet — except that there's no flushing facility.

Quite simply, the composting toilet turns human waste into garden soil — quickly, efficiently and with very little human intervention. Instead of flushing waste away in water, the composting toilet is positioned over a long drop. After each poo or a wee, a handful of natural composting material is dropped into the toilet. We’ve seen sawdust, hay and grass clippings being used in the various composting toilets we’ve visited recently.

Composting toilet, April 2011
A handful of composting material is placed into the toilet after it's used. There's no smell from the toilet — the only scent is that of the grass clippings that sit beside the toilet.

When the container under the toilet fills up, the waste is emptied into a composting bin. After about four months, that waste is now ready to use as extra-rich garden soil!

Composting bins, April 2011
In the garden, two composting bins sit inconspicuously, quietly doing their work of changing the toilet waste into garden soil.

Composting bin, April 2011
In the bin, the soil looks and smells like dirt. Just dirt.

Toilet compost, April 2011
It's hard to believe that I was handling toilet waste — in all respects and purposes, it was simply very rich soil.

It’s very simple to set up a composting toilet. All you need is the dunny, composting material, and a bin or two to empty the waste into. It’s great to learn that a sustainable practice for dealing with toilet waste on an individual level is so simple!

After working on the farm and learning about sustainable practices, we enjoyed the opportunity to relax together. The activities were labour-intensive but also extremely satisfying. We had helped a family harvest their food-crop and had continued building our new friendship with the Downers.

We feel inspired after visiting the Downers and their farm. It will be wonderful to stay in touch with them and see how their plans unfold in the future.