Living gently on the land

Environmental warriors Neil and Heather Barrett are well known for their active involvement in business and the community, but it’s their campaigns for green change that have been the couple’s greatest success stories.
Heather now coordinates the Hub Plot behind the Hub building which they purchased in 2006, while Neil is chair of the Hub Foundation. Together they’ve also started up The Paddock eco village project on the edge of Castlemaine.
The couple made the shift from Melbourne 35 years ago when they moved their home and audio visual business from Fitzroy to a new life on an abandoned, five-acre duck farm on the edge of Castlemaine and haven’t looked back since.
Their new country lifestyle was an opportunity to appreciate the natural environment and was the perfect place to grow their own food and raise their three daughters.
“We decided to get seriously involved in the climate change movement and got together with a few others to form the Mount Alexander Sustainability Group,” Neil says.
“In the first few years MASG organised a host of public events around climate change, renewable energy, cycling and energy efficiency and conducted one of the first solar bulk buys in Australia. We also worked towards making the Castlemaine State Festival carbon neutral.”
The group purchased the former hotel as an office for MASG and eventually renovated the building. Since it was officially opened by Barry Jones in 2010, it has become a home for many of Castlemaine’s green businesses and community groups.
“In 2014, we decided to set up a new organisation, using money from the operation of the hub building,” Heather says.
“The MASH solar project and Plastic Bag Free Castlemaine have been the foundation’s main activities.”
Heather says the MASH project has been successful “beyond their wildest dreams”.
“With the help of our executive officer Jo Kaptein, we’ve put on 850 solar systems which have cut the region’s carbon emissions by around 5000 tonnes per year. We’ve also installed six free systems on community buildings.”
Building on their strong environmental values, it is the couple’s vision to create a new standard for sustainable living that fosters a sense of community and closer connection to nature. The Paddock eco village will be a beautiful place to live for people who enjoy a green lifestyle.
“The Paddock is a fusion of many of the things we’ve wanted to do over the years,” Neil says.
“Our vision is that it will be a dynamic, creative community, living gently on the land and setting a new standard for housing developments. The guiding philosophy is the Living Building Challenge which sets a pretty high bar for us in terms of standards.”
The Paddock will comprise 25-27 homes, seven of which will be built as part of stage one plus a community centre. Around two-thirds of the total space will be dedicated to shared food gardens, planted wetlands, small wetlands, native gardens and orchards.
“It’s going really well. We’ve now pre-sold the first stage of seven houses and there’s a lot of interest in the last three stages. Earthworks will start in mid-April and construction a little later,” Heather says.
While their projects are flourishing, Neil says they plan to grow old “a little more gracefully from now on”.
“Heather’s planning to spend more time in her studio and I’m hoping my saxophone playing might improve markedly, for the benefit of all the others in the Corker Orchestra who have to listen to my squeaks at each practise session,” he says.
The couple love living in Castlemaine and the people they have met along the way.
“There are so many amazing people here from all sorts of backgrounds, newcomers and long-time residents. To cap it all off, our eldest daughter Heidi and her partner Tom and two little ones have recently returned to live in town. We’re almost locals now!”

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