Balancing sustainability and design

By Sharni Hastings

From designing outhouses for nurseries to award-winning homes for the environmentally conscious, Ecolibrium owner and designer Brett Grimley has (almost) done it all. He’s been a creative force in Eumundi for the past 12 years, leaving the impact of sustainability and design on everything he touches.

“My third job ever was an outhouse… literally, an outhouse… and I’ve kind of built my portfolio up from there,” he says.

Brett studied building design fresh out of high school, and then continued to graduate with a Bachelor of Science majoring in rainforest science after he claims to have “quit building design and architecture forever”.

“I was a drafty [someone who drafts the designs of buildings] in an architectural office,” he says. “So, I was never seen as a designer, never seen as having the potential to even be a designer because I didn’t have the right piece of paper.”

After 15 years of drafting, Brett had had enough. Since launching Ecolibrium Designs, Brett has created many works of art that demonstrate great skill. He moved from Cairns to Eumundi to follow his home design passion.

“At Ecolibrium we focus on how a home works with the land rather than just plonking a building onto a block of land and being done with it,” he says. “It’s about building design and home design and permaculture and tree forestry and water management. It’s also about trying to design soul.”

After 12 years in the business, Brett knows a thing or two about sustainable building design – and perhaps designing soul too – and he passionately discusses his ideas and opinions. This enthusiasm is how Brett nabbed his first award-winning build. But, for Brett, launching a business from scratch in a new town full of unfamiliar faces proved a struggle. With the highs must come the lows and while designing a particular home and working in the bunker under the house, Brett’s mind began to play tricks on him.

“We designed this really cool little house in Currumbin Eco Village,” he says. “[But at the time] I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have any friends and I got very depressed. We had only just moved here. So, I have a bond with that house, as well as with those clients. Those clients were very supportive of me, and they still drop in for a cup of coffee any time they want.”

Brett learnt how to ride the waves and enjoy his work being showcased in many homes including his own, shops, the infamous outhouse and now, glamping tents.

“It was hard at the start… really hard,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody – I didn’t even know any consultants or builders. I had no contacts whatsoever. Right now, I’m working on 19 glamping tents and four cabins as well as a yoga retreat. My dream would be to design an eco-resort … While those jobs aren’t as glamorous as an eco-resort, you’ve got to start somewhere.”

The draw-card for Brett when it comes to eco-resorts is the impact he believes it will have on both visitors and the earth alike. Maintaining that small impact is what fuels Brett’s creative mind and helps him design sustainable, one-of-a-kind homes.

“You’re given a big budget, and you’re expected to come up with something unique that fits beautifully into the environment while leaving a very small impact,” he says. “The bottom line is – if I throw it into the bush, how long does it take to go back to nature? Or does it at all? … We also focus on permaculture principles, and always try to revegetate areas outside the home with local native plant species.”

While Brett describes his day-to-day as “hectic”, it’s clear that his main priority in life is his family. His wife Amber also graduated with a Bachelor of Science majoring in Rainforest Science from James Cook University, and Brett describes her as an “underlying force” that keeps him walking the walk.

As for the future of the world, and an increased awareness of sustainable practices in the building industry and beyond, Brett believes there is still more to be done.

“People need to start taking responsibility for themselves, but the government also needs to change the rules,” he says. “If you leave people with the choice, they’re always going to take the easiest path – the one that benefits their hip pocket – and often you’ll find that’s the worst choice for the environment. Capitalism and sustainability are not necessarily opposed, but they do grate against each other. We have already run out of time, but we have got to keep trying.”

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