Gael is not a birthright Quaker, but her father attended a Quaker school and her parents decided that the Friends School in Hobart would provide the sort of education they wanted for their daughter. Gael chose to become a Quaker after leaving school. Trained as a nurse, she attended a YF camp in New Zealand in 1967 and became involved in planning and running a camp at Whanganui for intellectually handicapped children.
After gaining a degree in education and psychology she worked in the Department of Social Welfare, and later the State Services Commission. In 1969 came marriage to Robert, suburban life in Wellington and the advent of two children, Mark and Stephanie.
Gael reacted against the idea of the isolated nuclear family and sought community living, teaming up with couples with children willing to share a home, with the advantage that shared child- minding could lead to freedom for activities outside the home, in Gael’s case training and working in Marriage Guidance. The Howells found the ideal set-up over an eight year period when they shared facilities with another couple in two con-joined homes. This was an ideal situation for the children, and during this time Gael and Robert adopted son James.
When Robert’s work took him to Napier, Gael worked as Counselling Co-ordinator in the Hastings Family Court. The establishment of the first English language school in Hawkes Bay, a joint endeavour by the Howells with a partner, was an exciting project for fostering intercultural understanding in a community, especially through the system of home-stays. With few models to follow they had to be creative, ‘nothing was impossible’. Involvement in an agricultural college offering one- or two- year courses for Japanese students meant that the Howell’s lives were very involved with Japan over those years.
By 1996 the Howell family had settled in Auckland where Gael worked for a time in English language tuition to migrants while studying for a Post Graduate Diploma in International Communication at Unitec. Somehow she fitted in a stint as Monthly Meeting Clerk. Gael admits to getting bored with the same job after about five years, so moved into several different positions including Teaching English to refugee and migrant classes, Counselling Co-ordinator at the Waitakere City District Court, and working with Relationship Services to start settlement programmes for migrants. Over a decade Gael’s focus was on assisting migrants to gain the tools to help them adapt to life in New Zealand. Her present position is Programme Co-ordinator for American Study Abroad Students at the University of Auckland providing pastoral care and field trips.
Throughout the years in Auckland Gael’s great joy has been in the Quaker community and giving her children a Quaker upbringing, as far as possible, through attendance at YF camps and Summer Gatherings. Now it is the grandchildren’s turn to enjoy Summer Gatherings with their grandparents in attendance.
Five years ago the Howells decided to move from their home at Westharbour to the inner city, one reason being to cut down the time and energy-output involved in travelling from an outer suburb. They see close knit community living as the sensible alternative to suburban sprawl and isolation, and Gael, always a conservationist, looks forward to a future where she can work in a communal vegetable garden, be useful in developing community resilience to the changes occurring because of climate change, and be an active participant in her grandchildren’s development.
In 2005 the Howells bought a pleasant house in a tree-lined street in Mt Eden, but it was cold, and the sun was always shining into the wrong spaces. After living in it for several years, they decided to consult architects Jette and Neal de Jong from Heritage Design about preparing the house for the time when oil is no longer freely available as a source of the energy required to run a home.
As a result most of Gael’s free time at present is absorbed by the work involved in converting this early 1900s villa into a comfortable energy- efficient home. The original part of the house which contains the bedrooms is undergoing few changes, though Robert’s study is being moved to a room which has all day sun. A later addition of a large area across the back section on the north of the original house, with glazed doors opening on to a big deck, is being insulated, and redesigned so that the kitchen area gets sun while the bathroom/laundry is moved to the south side, replacing a small sitting room which was too small to be useful, its fireplace inefficient. Double glazing and wall insulation, blanket insulation under the floor, and a heat pump for winter use will make this open area of kitchen, dining and living space very comfortable in all seasons.
The heritage design architects follow a strongly environmental philosophy; no MDF toxic board is being used and all finishes are sustainable- no polyurethane! Cost cutting measures are confined to items like the pure wool carpet (in pieces needing to be joined). There will be no halogen lights requiring holes in the ceiling; light fittings will take eco bulbs.
Two solar panels for water heating are being installed and provision made for photovoltaic generation to be installed when new developments come on the market, so that the owners will generate their own power and feed excess on to the grid. Although gas was laid on the Howells will not be using this non-renewable energy, for they want the house to be ecologically sustainable for whoever lives there in the future. The new washing machine and dishwasher selected are the most energy efficient available. There will be no freezer or clothes drier; clothes are dried out of doors on a clothes line and aired on a rack, though an old-fashioned ceiling clothes rack which can be lowered and raised may be found necessary ultimately.
A composting toilet was considered but not chosen as the architect advised that the Auckland sewage system is well managed ecologically. His recommendation is for just one toilet for the house with the top model Corona flushing system. Roof water will be saved in under-floor bladders which, along with recycled domestic water, will be used in toilet, laundry and garden. Big trees in the garden will need severe pruning to allow enough sun for a successful vegetable garden. Fortunately a recent storm felled the biggest tree on the section opening up a valuable space for future planting. This home, like its owners, will be an inspiration to others wanting to change to more sustainable ways.