Quietly tucked away on a hidden infill block in Perth’s east, Sustainability Consultant Tanya McKenna stands in the dappled sun of a courtyard garden showing us around her beautiful home.
“All these windows were salvaged from houses from the 60s and 70s” she explains, gesturing to the wall of windows that service both floors of the house with copious amounts of natural light. On the floor of the living space that opens up to the courtyard, Tanya's boxer Henri basks in the warm glow of the midday sun.
Aptly referred to as the ‘Nature Inspired Eco House’, the sustainable living space Tanya and her partner Peter Chadwick built in 2016 stands as a shining example of how an eco-friendly, sustainable build and a beautiful, stylish home should never be considered mutually exclusive.
Eager to learn about the inspiration behind her influential vision on inner-city living in Perth, we take a moment to chat with Tanya on some of the challenges and joys associated with sustainable design, and hear how these values have helped to inform her approach in building a wardrobe.
DIANA: Thank you for inviting us into your home Tanya. You have received a great deal of attention due to the sustainable approach that you took when building this home. Why do you think people have been so interested in your place in particular?
TANYA: Thank you for having me! I really followed my heart with this house and aside from the eco characteristics we employed, I think the soul can be seen and felt in pictures of the space alone. The design itself is unique and represents an extraordinary example of what can be achieved with some passion and collaboration, on a small tight block, using predominantly recycled materials. Perhaps it breaks the stereotype of what a sustainable house might look like.
I created an Instagram early in the piece to start to narrate the progress with the build and it drew an organic following. People are genuinely interested in understanding sustainable housing and how they can get inspiration to do things differently themselves in their own houses or designs. Many have commented that it was the forest green that sparked their interest, or the nostalgia of the 60s breeze blocks that we used in the courtyard. I also think that in general, Perth people are seriously obsessed with houses!
When considering the design, was it a conscious decision to build an eco house from the beginning?
Absolutely. It was always something that both Peter and I wanted to do, and came as a natural progression from other renovation projects we had already completed. To me it makes complete sense to build something with nature in mind – from the perspective of energy, carbon-footprint, natural light and materials. It also set us a challenge, and with my sister Carla being an Architect open to working with us, we had a really good opportunity to create something special. Overall, I wanted to be able to break the stereotypical concept of a sustainable house by building something different.
Can you explain the elements that make your home eco?
Firstly, the footprint of the home is considerably smaller than average, which reflects the tight infill block that we built on. Ultimately, the smaller the better for sustainable housing, and through this we were able to show that small spaces still make for beautiful, liveable homes. The materials – from the repurposed windows, the salvaged floorboards and timber bench tops, the recycled concrete in the walls and the recycled bricks – are not only much more environmentally friendly but are also responsible for a great deal of the character and charm the house possesses.
With the north-south facing block, Carla designed the home to be solar passive, therefore it is oriented towards the north which maximises the natural light and helps us to maintain the indoor temperature all year round. The green roof is another key element and something I wanted to ensure was a feature of the design – being able to incorporate greenery into an urban space through planting out otherwise unused or under-utilised infrastructure like rooftops is something I am very passionate about. From a climate change perspective, greenery within cities is critical. We also focused on using vintage and second hand pieces for our interior furnishings, and filled our home with plants to keep the nature inside!
Building your own home can be a daunting undertaking that only a small number of people are willing to throw themselves into. What kind of challenges presented themselves that are unique to a sustainable build?
We were quite lucky with this house, particularly working with Carla and with such a fantastic builder. The main challenge was probably around the green roof. We were somewhat disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm from a company we believed would have been more interested in promoting green roofs in Perth. It all worked out in the end, but it was tougher than expected. Many people expected that the Council would have been difficult, but for this project the City of Vincent were supportive and quite easy to work with.
Whilst perhaps not a challenge to us, it is certainly more effort working with old, recycled or repurposed materials. It takes time to negotiate with tradesmen to help them realise your vision – but I think that’s all part of the fun and games in the end.
Are there any elements of the home that you wish you had done differently?
We always look back and wish we installed a water tank to catch excess water from the roof, to feed our small garden and lawn. Water is one of the most valuable resources on the planet and even though we don’t get a great deal of rainfall in Perth, I still believe water tanks should be installed wherever possible. I don’t think we’ll do another project without being more conscious of water consumption and recycling.
How does your job align with your own eco-values?
Sustainability is something that is applicable to any industry. I’m very conscious of the future of the planet and it is something I personally fear but refrain from talking in too much depth about unless the person I’m talking to shares my views. My role in a global resources company allows me to work within a strategic team that not only share my values, but are aligned in working together to influence significant decisions and directions involving the community and the environment. It can be hard, but when I step back and consider the work we do and the opportunity we have to really make a difference – I’m pretty fortunate for that.
Has your interest in sustainability grown from your current occupation or is it something that has always interested you?
It is definitely something that has always interested me. My entry into university was through an arts degree, but after the first year I realised that journalism probably wasn’t really where I wanted my career to go. At 17 years of age, not many people really know. I genuinely took notice of the world around me and at the time it was a particular environmental issue that provoked me to switch my degree to focus on Environmental Management. Before I knew it I was studying in Copenhagen, an experience I am forever indebted to, for having such a positive impact on my outlook.
After ten years working primarily as an environmental consultant, I am now working in a social responsibility role at South32 – a global mining company headquartered in Perth that is socially and environmentally conscious of its impact on the world. I’m surrounded by a team of six unbelievably passionate sustainability professionals who have been hired to steer the company to better performance from the perspective of social impact, climate change, water stewardship, human rights, biodiversity and land management. It is completely dynamic, collaborative and constantly evolving.
Something I always find challenging is knowing where to draw the line when approaching things in an environmentally friendly way. What do you do to help contribute to saving the planet?
I agree – and it can be really overwhelming. There’s constantly new technologies, new products, new or inconsistent messaging about products, the environment in general, or just ‘better’ ways of doing things. We can make small differences, but then jump on a return flight to Sydney and negate all the good things we just did because of the carbon emissions associated with our flight. Personally though, I'm a strong believer that there are so many little things we can all do. Buy less, choose wisely, reduce consumption of plastic, pick up waste, install solar panels, use less energy, say hi to your neighbour, plant a verge garden, spend some time learning about Indigenous Australians and their profound connection to land, choose recycled over new, switch your superannuation fund to an ethical fund (check out Future Super), buy a bike (or an e-bike!), give a few dollars to the homeless, sell your car, buy an electric vehicle, catch public transport, grow your food and swap excess with your neighbours, use a reusable coffee cup, volunteer in a program to help others, eat less meat, install a water tank... the list goes on!
...and what are the kinds of things, (that you might be embarrassed to admit you don’t do) that you wish you did?
I need to focus on food waste – feeding my worms more. Plastic still bothers me a lot – but I find that the less time I have to plan ahead, the more waste I consume. I definitely need to plan ahead to be more effective and spend more time in zero-waste stores!
How do your values inform your own personal style and approach to fashion?
When I was younger, I thrived on vintage fashion. I still love vintage but I try to buy much less overall – my approach now is quality over quantity. I’m very specific with my style and the pieces I choose – I like bold, timeless and structured design with the likes of Issey Miyake, Zambesi, NOM*D and local designers who use quality, ethical fabrics. There are a several labels around now who are focusing on sustainability, like Kowtow and Arnsdorf. I find particular pieces on my travels – bizarrely I found my dream swimwear in a boutique in Iceland last year, of all places – a black one piece with pleats – I can’t go past pleats.
What are the "go-to" pieces in your wardrobe right now and why?
I purchased a white dress in Sri Lanka last year by an ethical designer – Maus. I wear it often – it’s timeless, unique and multi-seasonal. I have a favourite structured white dress by Ricochet from New Zealand that I pair with a bold pair of earrings, and find myself wearing a pair of lace culottes by Fenella Peacock that I purchased years ago – I was lucky enough to do a sewing class with this designer in her home studio last year! In winter, my go to will be my leather pants by Malene Birger and locally made black knit by I Love Mr Mittens. Of course, it goes without saying that I think my favourite piece in my wardrobe at the moment is definitely my black Tülay [Dinçel] dress that I wore to my 30th – something that will be kept forever – an absolute work of art!
Does your wardrobe change significantly between office and leisure time?
Some items cross over and some items just don’t. I think it depends how I feel on the day, but I tend to keep certain items for my pleasure time only. My style remains the same and colour is almost always white, black or blue. However, someone nearly fell over the other day when I wore a green Nom*D skirt to work – I think it was the day after my 30th and I was feeling bold. I also have to think about cycle-friendly outfits for work – some dresses just are definitely not as practical as others in that respect!
What’s on the horizon for Tanya this year, and would you ever build again?
Yes. Absolutely. This year will be a big challenge for me – we are about to start a new chapter – this time renovating a 1915 cottage in one of my favourite suburbs, Bayswater. The vision is still coming together and it's definitely going to be a little different... I think with a focus on Australian design and local materials that reflect WA's natural landscape - a modern garden of natives and maybe a garden studio.
It will be hard to leave home, but we’re ready and looking for the next big thing.
Travel wise – we’re off to New York City for the first time in September. Somewhere I’ve always wanted to go so I’m hanging out for that – a surprise from Peter for my 30th birthday. ✹
Follow Tanya's journey and her Nature Inspired Eco House here.
Tanya wears Tülay Dinçel, Comme Des Garçons, Pleats Please, Issey Miyake ME and Kuboraum.
Words by Diana Paolucci.