Castlemaine: A place where you can dare to dream green

Poppy Johnston

smiling man and woman
Photo: Mount Alexander Sustainability Group/Facebook

Castlemaine has long been a haven for creative types with a sustainability bent. If you’ve ever driven through the region in the late afternoon autumn light and noticed the stunning colours of the landscape, its soft hills and small villages packed with generous old homes and commercial buildings you’ll understand why.

Situated on Dja Dja Wurrung Country 120 kilometres northwest of Melbourne, this regional centre is also replete with an abundance of gold mining heritage that speaks to its popularity and wealth in times gone by.

Long known to the early counter culture adopters, over the past 10 years the town has attracted even more tree-changing Melbournians. Mount Alexander Shire Councillor Rosie Annear says this has only added fuel to an already robust local appetite for climate action and sustainability.

The business community is also green

There’s a thriving green business community. Everybody The Green List spoke to mentioned The Mill, an old factory that was bought by a local

Mount Alexander Shire Councillor Rosie Annear

developer who turned it into an art and food precinct showcasing local wares.

Castlemaine is also home to eco-conscious businesses such as Like Butter, a furniture and fabrication business that runs its operations off 100 per cent clean energy. It also looks to keep waste to a minimum via a clever design that avoids off-cuts and reusing otherwise wasted materials, as well as composting all sawdust product onsite.

There’s also the 100% Clean Energy Campaign that invites businesses to jump on board the clean energy revolution and go 100 per cent renewable.

Some of the most sustainable housing around

According to real estate agent Genevieve Cantwell of Cantwell Property Castlemaine, the local property market is booming, as it is in all the regions. She says the market has always been strong, given its proximity to Melbourne, and has now gone up by 15-20 per cent, with a very tight rental market to boot.

Compared to what you get in the capitals, it’s easy to appreciate the value. An attractive weatherboard house with four bedrooms on more than 1000 square metres of land will set you back $1.065 million but you might also be perfectly happy with a more modest place with three bedrooms on 672 sq m for somewhere between $730,000 and $800,000.

The attraction, Cantwell says, is that a lot of people realise they can relocate to the region from Melbourne now that they’re confident they can work from home for at least a portion of the working week.

Many are bringing their green appetites with them. And they’re finding a ready made green network in real estate, with some significant and innovative sustainable residential developments.

There are Eco Sustainable Homes that feature rammed earth walls. And there are the Bull Street project and The Paddock, a 27-lot environmentally aware housing development being built in three stages on a 1.4-hectare site at Reckleben Street, both of which have lined up for the Living Building Challenge standard, notoriously one of the toughest to achieve.

The Paddock is the work of Neil Barrett and his wife Heather Barrett. Speaking to The Green List, Neil says that the project has been delayed by Covid but that there’s already been a lot of interest in the sustainable homes that can have a NatHERS ratings as high as 8.6 and come in at a high $700,000 for a three bedroom home that’s ready to move into.

Neil says people are equally interested in the sustainability features and the sense of community, which has become a top-of-mind for people living in apartments during the pandemic where they may not know their neighbours.

The development caters to those preferences with generous communal facilities, including a large garden studio/shed and electric bike and EV sharing.

The town is spoilt for sustainability groups.

The Mount Alexander Sustainability Group is one of the most active and have got a bunch of great projects up and running, including the Castlemaine Repair Café where locals bring their busted toasters and broken bikes to get them repaired or learn to do it themselves.

Another ambitious project is to build a bioenergy facility next to a big, emissions intensive factory, the Don KR Smallgoods’ plant, with community investment.

These facilities rely on anerobic digestion technology, which takes organic waste, digests it in big tanks, and then captures the carbon neutral gas. This can be used in many ways including injected into the gas grid, which is commonly done in parts in Europe.

After the feasibility study the group is now looking for investment. Councillor Rosie Annear says there has been a lot of community pushback, with many worried about the unfamiliar technology. It will be interesting to see if the project, which could reduce emissions in the region by 88,500 tonnes a year, goes ahead.

There’s also MASH – the campaign for More Australian Solar Homes – that has been operating in the community for years buying high quality solar systems in bulk for the community. It’s managed to put solar on 900 houses in nine years also donates 1 per cent of the bulk buy revenue as free solar for community groups, kindergartens and schools.

The community has steered the council in the right direction

Rosie says the community’s enthusiasm inspired the council to declare a climate emergency in 2019, which resulted in two different strategic roadmaps: one to achieve carbon neutral council operations by 2025, and the other to support the community to do the same through the ZNET community transition plan. Run by Mount Alexander Sustainability Group and the council, the project has some funding from state government agency Sustainability Victoria.

Cleaning up the council’s energy supply has been the first major job in cutting the council’s own emissions, with rooftop solar now atop the library and other large buildings. The council also signed up to the Victorian Energy Collaboration (VECO) for a long-term contract with Red Energy to provide the VECO group with renewable energy generated from wind farms in Victoria.

Transitioning the EV fleet is already underway, with chargers installed in Castlemaine and Harcourt including the council carparks. Then there’s the less glamourous stuff such as transitioning the streetlighting to LEDS, which Rosie says use around 75 per cent less energy and is clearly nothing to scoff at!