Newsflash : Changes @ Sustainable Alternatives

After months of deliberation and many stressful sleepless nights it is time to make the announcement that change is in the air @ Sustainable Alternatives.

Bernie and Rose have restructured how they will continue to operate Sustainable Alternatives (albeit as a part-time venture).

Rose will have a more hands-on role in the overall running of the business and Bernie will focus on ONLY offering a Permaculture/Sustainability Design, Consultation and Teaching service and will not be available to build and/or install any new construction projects.

We realize that restructuring the business in order that Bernie can be employed full-time outside of Sustainable Alternatives may come as a big surprise to those of you who know Bernie and the type of ‘exclusive niche-market’ construction work that he does, but at the end of the day, especially in these times of economic uncertainty, the family’s well-being must come first.

Rose Elsner

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Permaculture/Sustainability Consultant/Designer
Permaculture/Edible Gardens (Concept Drawings and Designs)
Permaculture/Sustainability Courses
Permaculture/Sustainability Workshops and Presentations

0438 420 138


The Timber Industry – When the Wood Works!

My personal account and perspective on the Timber Industry in Western Australia … a sign of the times!

Two weeks ago saw the closure of the Dean Mill timber mill (located south of Perth near Manjimup).  Dean Mill was the last major Jarrah timber mill to bite the saw dust. This particular scenario plays heavily in my own mind as I have been thinking about it quite a bit since hearing the news reports on the radio that I was listening to as I dressed some recycled jarrah timber ready for a new project that I was contracted to build.

I feel that I should write something from my own experience in the South West timber industry.

My own tale begins back in the early 90’s when my soon to be wife and I moved to Pemberton as a young couple looking for a life change and new experience.  Rose had (and still has) some major health issues to deal with so we thought that a move to the country would be beneficial to her rehabilitation and we both look forward to the challenges of starting a ‘new life’ together.

Little did I know at the time that the things that I would experience and gain from the time that I lived and worked in Pemberton would become the foundations of not only our strong relationship but also for a good portion of  the work that I now find myself doing for my own business.

The Pemberton timber mill was as with most timber towns across Australia, the hub of local employment, housing and of course the immediate local economy.

I was told by friends already living in Pemberton, that if I was to get a mill job that we would be in the running to live in a company subsidised mill cottage, so naturally I called the Mill Manager direct from Perth asking if there were any jobs coming up in the near future.

He indicated that his preference was to meet prospective employees face to face, so I replied that I would be seeing him tomorrow morning.  I promptly drove the 320 kilometres from Perth to Pemberton, sleeping overnight in my van at our friends property and arrived at his door first thing the next morning … I think he then realised that I would be a suitable candidate for a position at his timber mill when one became available.

It wasn’t very long that a position came up and after living in our friends shed for almost 6 months we moved into a cute little timber mill workers cottage on the main highway adjacent to the actual mill itself.  We both fell in love with Pemberton and soon purchased a 8 acres Jarrah re-growth bush property which was situated just a few minutes drive out-of-town, where we planned to one day build our own home … yes!

I knew absolutely nothing about timber (I actually hated woodwork at school) and started employment in the lower end of the system learning from older mentors and observing the sizes and types of timber cut for special uses.

It was during the heat of summer (yes it does get hot in Pemberton) and I ran around all day dodging falling wood under a corrugated shack helping an experienced worker send timber in 3 different destinations.  Lets just say that I had to learn what to do mighty fast because I basically had to traffic manage the entire timber load that was processed in the mill!

I lost 20 kg in two weeks and it wasn’t too long that this ‘quick-learner’ made his way up to a specific location that actually cut and sized the timber.  This was good for me as  I now was seeing the stuff come from the large band saws (as slabs) and then cut by multi saws (in widths) and then over to us to cut into lengths.  My role was to position the lengths so as to maximise the cut ratio out of each piece.

Little did I know that I was being observed by one particular worker ‘Dave’, whom had several issues with fellow workmates on his particular area of expertise.  He watched me and noticed that I was extremely economical and exact in making sure little or no waste was generated by the care I was taking, yet I was faster than the other blokes who have been working there for years.

I was then asked if I would like to work with Dave in this important position and so I was to become a qualified Re-Saw Dockerman working on high value structural and appearance grade timbers which would be used locally and internationally for a range of very specific purposes.

We were just two blokes but we were dealing with a third of the entire timber mill’s high value output daily.  Dave and I would turn, lift,  examine, mark and cut to order over 30 cubic tonnes of select grade Karri timber every single day.

The types of things we supplied were appearance grade blocks of 300mm x 300mm for the veneer industry, mine guides, as well as export sleepers too.  It was a very hard, heavy going job with high risks for injuries like ‘frog fingers’ (when a beam splats your finger between a roller) … oh yes, remember that well (that was a ripper) … we did this job together for a number of years.

Eventually my wife and I became parents for the first time.  Although Rose had a normal pregnancy, our son’s birth was highly traumatic and he had ongoing health complications that required regular medical treatment in either Bunbury and/or Perth.  Rose was still dealing with chronic health issues of her own and with our families all being based in Perth we decided to move back and settle in the ‘burbs’ of Perth.

So where is my head these days?

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss Pemberton and the lifestyle that we would be living but 13 years later, I now find myself as a happily married father of 3, small business owner-operator who finds himself building some unique recycled timber projects.

I have a clear understanding of what I am not and I am definitely not some resentful redneck ex-mill worker nor am I a  tree-hugging greenie/environmental activist either.

What I am is a Permaculturist and as a permaculturist I find myself planting trees, using the byproducts of trees and most important of all I respect and greatly value trees.  With that said, I am also proud of  what I was taught whilst employed as a timber mill worker at the Pemberton mill because it is the skills and knowledge gained from my experience that helps me this very day, years later, when I am working with recycled timber.  Also because I have experienced both sides of the ‘timber debate’ I am able to be objective and value both the milling of the timber and the recycling of the milled timber too.

I walked into a strong historical industry full of characters most of whom were making a living for their families.

I walked into an industry as a young novice and left as a qualified and experienced man.  A man who had a balanced view and understanding that although this industry was very political and subsidised for far too long, that many local people lived and made their living  from such infrastructure directly and indirectly and by doing so a country town survived.

I walked into a small town and showed that I could work hard and contribute to and live peacefully.

But with that said, I consider myself lucky … because I could walk out too!   As I did, by mid ’96 back to Perth as a husband, father and now ex-millworker … but a question has always lingered inside me … I wonder ‘what has happened to all the other blokes working at the timber mill and their families’ as some of these men were from generation-generation timber workers.

I find myself asking the same question again today as Dean Mill shuts it’s gates forever.

Have I in my own small way, caused the timber mill to shut by using mostly recycled jarrah in my work and by doing so have I helped to put an end to their market and the mill workers jobs?

Well the answer is quite simply no I have not.  I know that I am being just a tad silly contemplating such a question and  that I am no doubt feeling  a little emotional thinking about what will happen to the timber mill workers and their families, let alone the township of Dean Mill.  All industries seem to eventually have a mean girth shift in economies, as steel and plantation pine shifted into structural markets these large volume sites just can’t keep going …  as usual economic viability will always win out in the end.

I am not sure if I actually have any answers for these mill workers other than just to say that you may be very surprised in the skills that you do have and maybe, just maybe, that they can be value added just like the timber industry that I find myself working in nowadays.

The time that Rose and I had in Pemberton was just under five years, yet I often find myself saying to people that ‘I got at least ten years out of it’ …. it’s not often that you gain time in life.  It was an experience that I personally will never forget  … it has helped shaped me into the person that I am today and for that I will be forever grateful.

Bernie Elsner

Grow Your Groceries Gardening – Limited space to grow food?

As the typical suburban block gets smaller and smaller and the homes that we require are getting bigger and bigger the argument that I hear more often than not is that there is no room left for growing food, composting and storage.

Well I tend to take that particular comment as a challenge these days and often will quite happily use large amounts of oxygen (as it is still free) to argue my point that this is not so.

Using clever design strategies everybody can easily grow their own food (grow your groceries gardening) even if the only space you have is an apartment balcony.

The hang over from the 1/4 acre blocks of the 60’s and 70’s with what seemed an endless back yard with several sectioned off areas and a couple of sheds, a huge Hills Hoist and a near full-sized cricket pitch in lush green lawn has burned an image of big is best when the growing of food is required.

I admit, even nowadays I often take an odd peep over a fence or two when I am working onsite in the older suburbs of the Perth metropolitan area.  I am getting quite good at spotting the odd Italian or Greek family home with its give-away prickly pear cactus usually growing on the boundary fence and a forest of timber garden stakes supporting an abundance of tomato and egg plants.  It is when I am peering over the fence when I usually contemplate just how long it will be before the owner’s children will sub-divide their parent’s block into a multi-unit development of sorts.

Although the majority of these huge blocks are all but gone, you can still achieve a return on these smaller properties by looking at the actual space that is available and designing a food garden to suit.

Growing Your Own Food in a limited space – An example of how it can be done!

I have recently been involved in assisting a semi-retired couple who have down sized to one such sub-divided block.

They have the house in the front and well lets say that there is of course no backyard available to grow a garden in.  This then leaves only the front yard which after you add an undercover carport plus a second car parking bay and the battle-axe driveway to the rear dwelling, what you are left with is a couple of skinny strips of not much at all.

Being in the flat land suburbs here in Perth, the soil at this site is of course the worst in the world to work with as the soil consists of ancient sand dunes that are devoid of any organic matter and life.

The clients also had problems bending down to tend to the garden areas and with these two issues to address it was decided that raised garden beds at waist height were required.  This also meant that the soil would need be introduced to the beds and that the need for constant soil building would not be required.

So stage one begins with the introduction of four slim-line raised veggie tanks in a matching colour that followed the existing narrow ‘L’ shaped garden beds.

These raised veggie tanks were partially dug into the existing soil height and positioned so as access was easy and the car bay could still allow car doors to open.

A mixture of seasonal herbs and vegetables as well as an array of companion plants soon added colour, shape and character to these beds and positive comments and amazement followed as neighbours walked past.

The garden beds are connected to the mains water via a timer and solenoid.  The water is dispersed through drip-line irrigation that emits 8 litres of water per hour from each drip hole directly at the root zone.

The first half of these beds is back-filled with soil from the site as well a cheap tree prunings that have been mulched up as this still allows adequate drainage but also supports the quality vegetable soil mix that is then placed in the top half of the raised veggie tank. Some minor settlement will occur over time but a little soil top up is all that is required and is a relative easy maintenance job that will need to be done from time to time with these raised veggie tanks.

Now just growing some food is not the only achievement that this yard could offer and so a second stage was added that addressed composting and waste management as well as a preparation and storage area.

The area between the house and the carport received no rain and little direct sunlight thus being a bone of contention for the owner to deal with.  I suggested that instead of attempting to grow a garden in this strip that they should consider using it as a storage area instead?

They have four ‘wheelie’ bins that take up valuable room in the back area and so I designed four custom bays that house the bins concealed behind neat recycled jarrah doors.  Two of the bins store spare mulch and soil for the garden and so bringing them to the front permanently made sense to me!

Equally the amount of paper waste that we make daily and the need for constant nutrients to be added into our garden beds suggested to me that a composting worm farm would be beneficial to the couple thus reducing the landfill issues that we have and in doing so return the waste material back into our food.

The word guild‘ in Permaculture relates to the assembly of plants and organisms together offering harmony and benefit for common outcomes.

I have taken the guild concept and dropped it into a structural form creating areas that link together.  They are unique individually but all harmonise in a common outcome … a ‘Production Guild‘  is an outcome of the production of either or all things such as compost, wash bays, preparation benches, worm farms and storage etc  and so a production guild was also built into the last remaining space on the site.

The total space used for the food, bin-bays and production guild amounts to less than 18 m2 and yet the clients have given food away because of sheer abundance.

The timber used in the project is mostly recycled jarrah and repainted salvaged corrugated tin and the wash trough and worm trough are also salvaged. The timber is oiled with a linseed based oil and the in ground timber is protected by a certified organic timber preservative.

I have included photographs of this particular job with this blog post (and have more on my website)  to help you to better understand how I was able to convert a un-used front yard into a vibrant food growing productive zone which has brought renewed energy and vitality not only into this property but also into the local community.

Bernie Elsner

Sustainable Alternatives


First things first, let me introduce myself …

My name is Bernie (some of you may know me as “Berneye”).

I am a practicing Permaculturist who resides in the land DownUnder (Australia).

My intention in writing this blog is to showcase examples of  how you can easily utilise Permaculture Principles and Ethics in everyday situations.

In other words, I will help teach you how you can find answers to problems by putting into  practice simple Sustainable Alternatives = Sustainable Solutions for Everyday Living.

When i’m not out and about being a Permaculturist (“on the tools” ) you’ll find me over @ my website so be sure to check it out sometime!

Bernie 🙂