THE country around Hope Vale in far north Queensland is stubbornly equivocal. It can’t decide whether to be rainforest or desert. The mangroves and thick vegetation nod to the tropical seasonal wet, and the red soil to the dry.
The wet seems to have arrived early in Cape York this year. A campsite called Billy Boil just outside Hope Vale started this week in sweltering heat and finished up awash, as the first rains of the wet pelted the coast. Wild brumbies sheltering in the bushland looked discomfited by the sudden change in the weather.
Doreen Hart and brother Lawrie Gibson are building their dream familial house in the bush at the end of a dirt road outside Hope Vale. For some Australians (sufficient finances, good temper and aspiration willing), home building and home ownership would be an unremarkable event – a birthright in a country obsessed with paradise on a quarter-acre block.
But this indigenous family is creating not only shelter for an extended clan of seven siblings, 38 children and 45 grandchildren, they are making an emphatic political statement with this house. They are the willing face of a responsibility revolution playing out slowly, and in some quarters controversially, on the Cape.
The house under construction is on Doreen’s mother’s traditional homelands, but state law does not enable the land in indigenous communities to be privately owned. The family therefore does not own title to the land, which means that, at any time, the clever, functional structure under construction at Billy Boil might have to be dismantled and taken out.
They are building anyway, daring politicians to keep up, implementing indigenous leader Noel Pearson’s self-help philosophy, literally weatherboard by weatherboard, starring in a reality show that this week featured a cameo by the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, and his small travelling entourage.
Unlike the bulk of indigenous housing in very remote places, this is not a social house, funded by government. High-profile venture capitalist Mark Carnegie is providing the funds for this build, and five more like it, through his philanthropic foundation; the owners are investing what Pearson calls their ”sweat equity”. With help from a motivated and community-minded group of Victorians, who have travelled distinct, but ultimately intersecting, personal journeys to the Cape, they are building this house, slowly, with their own hands.
When we land at Billy Boil this week in a helicopter, fresh from a look at a sacred site with Noel Pearson, just over the hill at Gudi, one of the first people I meet is North Carlton woman Hannah Robertson. Robertson, a 25-year-old master’s degree student at the University of Melbourne, is the architect of the house.
The sweat and dust-encrusted man driving the saw and mentoring the family labourers is Maurie Killeen. He and wife Heather are retired Gippsland sawmillers, grey nomads from Sale. Maurie followed his father into the family business, which began in 1939. Maurie loves his timber.
Cape York was initially a holiday destination. ”We first came up here in 2003. I saw all the great timber and wondered why it wasn’t being used to build houses,” Killeen says. ”So I got onto Noel. He said ‘get up here, and we’ll work it out’.”
Robertson came to design the house at Billy Boil by volunteering for Pearson’s organisation, Cape York Partnerships, in 2009. The early housing programs she was involved with felt like stepping stones, not solutions. After the wet season, she says, ”I went back to university, then I went overseas on exchange.
”When I came back, I heard about some self-built shacks on the beach near Hope Vale. I contacted Noel and told him I’d like to research those houses, but Noel said he was more interested in a built result. Was I interested?”
She ventured back up north, went to the site at Billy Boil, made observations, produced a design, working at the same time on her university thesis, which critiqued two distinct architectural approaches – observation and consultation.
Consultation won out.
Enabling a hands-on role for the family in the design for Billy Boil promoted ownership and responsibility, the catchphrases of the Pearson enterprise.
For Robertson, a highly intelligent and gently spoken young woman, it would require patience. The design is not so much a plan, the conventional set of instructions between architect and client, as the beginning of a conversation.
”I sat down with the family and got them to make a model. That process drew a second design.”
Robertson wanted to design a house explicitly for the homelands – open plan, with a flexible multi-purpose design to accommodate a large extended family. It needed to be positioned just so on the bush site in order to catch the cooling breeze, and provide substantial shelter from the roasting sun to the west. A house in the community in town would be a very different architectural concept, requiring more security and privacy.
The verandahs at Billy Boil are wide and unencumbered to accommodate a preference for sleeping outside. Necessary amenities, the kitchen and toilets, are situated outside – drawing perhaps ironically on old Australian housing vernacular – the dunny down the back, the kitchen in a lean-to outside so the house doesn’t burn down.
Located more than 80 kilometres past Cooktown, it is a profound achievement that weaves together the cultural importance of land, and the modern capitalist virtues of personal ownership and aspiration.
The timber is sourced from around the area, reclaimed and selectively logged. Maurie Killeen has little time for plantation wood. ”There is no plantation timber good enough for housing and furniture,” he declaims.
Everyone mucked in this week, including Abbott and daughter Frances, in the Cape to lend a hand at Pearson’s invitation. Abbott enjoyed the hard work, the cheery society of the camp-out and, of course, the opportunity to amplify both his own and Pearson’s ”pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy for indigenous transformation.
The question is will this first ”owned” house be the start of a revolution in theory and practice for indigenous housing, or just another gesture of goodwill that founders because of the intractability of the underlying problems. Venture capitalist and philanthropist Mark Carnegie, who dines monthly with Pearson, doesn’t know. But he is willing to give it a crack.
Carnegie, from a prominent Melbourne business family, these days lives in Sydney. He says he became involved in Pearson’s owner-builder program because of a question he got asked by a school student during a trip to Arnhem Land (”Why do we have a program to build houses in Cambodia, but not here?”), as well as the willing predisposition of his foundation director towards an indigenous housing venture philanthropy project.
The funding model is still evolving. Carnegie has provided working capital at Hope Vale – saws and equipment. The involvement of Maurie Killeen is critical, his milling and bush carpenter skills are at the core of the business, capabilities able to be transferred to the local community. (”Maurie’s goal is to be made redundant,” Hannah Robertson says.)
The hard cost of the Billy Boil house Carnegie estimates at $25,000-$50,000. Loans are repaid. The concept of underwriting graceful and practical building architecture, designed to improve social architecture, was a promising one for a suit with a social conscience.
”I’ve financed this [house], and the next five after this. Let’s see if it makes a difference,” Carnegie says.
He is hopeful that the basic principle of ownership can be transformational. But there is no hubris or overstatement.
”Let’s not think we’ve found the cure for cancer here,” he laughs on the phone from Sydney.
”We are trying in a graduated and modest way to make a difference. I think it will take a decade to see whether this acorn produces an oak tree.”