I cycled through Northern Italy in my early 20s, and I can still feel the gentle warmth of that late summer summer light. Nothing I’ve read or watched has ever captured that feeling again.   It’s one reason I’d like to take my family overseas - although the carbon footprint or flight, for humans, is currently prohibitive.  

Visiting Varuna Writers’ House on a mid winter’s day,  just before their first independent writers festival, took me straight back to the sunlit road-side vegetable shop in Genova, where I bought tomatoes for lunch. There were no plastic bags, no machine checkouts, and no ‘fast service’.  Against my general rushy nature, which seems to be the Australian way of late, excuse the pun, I had to wait patiently in line, and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of that small shop, while each customer was attentively served and the vegetables packed with care and humour.

Following extensive work to lower their carbon usage, Varuna Writers House now  has that lovely feeling of dry, just right, sunlit warmth that you can enjoy sitting in winter sun. Varuna's writers certainly won’t be overheating or turning to ice in some tucked away back room.  Knowing Varuna’s sedentary creatives are now enclosed in a pocket of warmth makes even me feel more relaxed.  

Following their first Low Carbon Living carbon audit in 2017, Vera Costello, also a member of Blue Mountains Slow Food and Citta Slow movements,  successfully applied for a $19,000.00 Green Energy Grant to implement the LCL recommendations. The grant process included workshops to develop a business plan around implementing an energy reduction strategy.   

Varuna was closed in April 2018 to undertake the work. This included insulating the ceiling throughout with Jason York’s high quality Earthwool Insulation - glasswool without dyes or preservatives, and made from recycled materials where possible. 

Raised as a builders apprentice in America’s North Atlantic Winter, Jason learned what thermal efficiency truly involves, and is amazed at the amount of energy wasted in Australian homes due to poor ceiling, wall or floor insulation, or proper sealing, partitioning, curtains, pelmets and/or double glazing...‘a well insulated home can reduce energy consumption by up to 40% or more...on average upwards of 50% or more of home energy consumption comes from heating & cooling’ - Jason York.

The job was bigger than expected.  Very patchy fibreglass insulation was removed and the whole top floor ceiling insulated.  The walls are sealed and did not need insulating. Some old fibro found in the process was tested and had no asbestos. Previously the office and garden studio had no insulation, and the increased comfort of those areas is the most pronounced.  All the hot water pipes have also been insulated to minimise energy waste. 

The ancient gas boiler that kept a large tank of water heated to supply the hydronic central heating system, has been replaced with a more efficient instant gas water heater to supply the hydronic heating system and hot water for general use.  The temperatures of all rooms, where the hydronic heaters could previously only be turned on or off, can now be set at a target temperature from the central reception and living area at a comfortable 21-25 degrees. Each room has its own thermostat for personalised comfort, ensuring energy isn’t wasted in unused spaces.

The optimal heating recommendation the World Health Organisation is 18 degrees for healthy adults.  However, a study published by Australia’s Building and Environment journal showed that: ‘boosting the office temperature a little higher than 22 degrees can save energy and (also) keep office workers comfortable without sacrificing their cognitive performance.’

In 2008 four big pine trees and dozens of ageing pines we sure taken out to let the sun shine in to Varuna’s gardens and Northern facing main building for passive solar heating. A community grant received 11 years ago was used to install a rainwater 10,0000 litre water tank with three quarters use for toilets and the garden. All Varuna’s lighting has been switched to LED as part of the Heritage grant, which is guaranteed to save 50% on energy bills. 

Vera Costello has filled the small store room, where the gas boiler once was, with the electric heaters and fans previously used to keep guest writers from overheating or freezing. The log fire is put on for ambience when guests arrive, but along with all the electric heaters, is no longer necessary.   

Varuna House has saved 9.1 tCO2-e and $3784 annually following these more recent changes (just enough for a short European Holiday!).  Initial bills indicate a 22% reduction in Varuna's carbon footprint.  

With her persistence starting to pay off, Vera seems to radiate a glow of satisfaction and warmth as she sits in the sunlight of the main living area’s North facing 1940s bay windows on the mid-winters day that I visit. 

Vera is waiting patiently to see if Yorks insulation will also reduce the discomfort of Katoomba’s occasional sweltering summer days. 

Whilst fans use a fraction of the energy consumed by heating appliances, we’ll have to wait to see if they are still needed...unlike Varuna’s Festival fans, who are still definitely needed, and can now rest assured that their visit or stay is a low carbon living experience.