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Green Clean for Sydney's Opera House

Date: 22-Jun-17
Author: Laura Chalk

Steve Tsoukalas - Photo: Peter Rae © Farifax 2017 © Fairfax

Steve Tsoukalas - Photo: Peter Rae © Farifax 2017

A 50-year love affair between man and building nurtured with bicarb soda, olive oil and devotion.

Steve Tsoukalas calls Sydney’s iconic Opera House the “other woman” in his life. He started working at the Opera House over 49 years ago as a builder and scaffolder. Over time he has watched the giant white sails and the life within take shape. Being at the site from its inception, he knew the architect, Jorn Utzon, and witnessed the wear and tear the building received, as waves of people visited.

For the past 12 years, Mr Tsoukalas, 72, has devotedly cleaned this majestic building with a mix of bicarbonate of soda, white clay, olive oil and laundry flakes. He refuses to use harsh chemicals, saying “The reason I try all these years to find a solution to not using chemicals is because I love the building and I don’t want it to be sick. If it is sick, I am going to be sick.”

His winning cleaning concoction is now listed in the House’s official eco-friendly cleaning guidelines for contractors.

Mr Tsoukalas grew up on the Greek Island of Kalymnos, under the protection of his grandmother who raised his family after his mother died when he was three. Remembering his grandmother’s cleaning techniques, he developed his innovative cleaning strategy at the House.

When Mr Tsoukalas joined the cleaning team, he tested his ideas by spraying a solution of bicarb soda and water on a patch of concrete in the Utzon room. After wiping it off with rags a few minutes later, he was overjoyed to discover that it had removed decades of filth that had built up from indoor smoking, human oil and other stains.

By coincidence, Mr Utzon lived on another Mediterranean Island, Majorca . One day he received a photo of the transformed concrete, with the message that Mr Tsoukalas had developed a new cleaning solution with astonishing results.

“The answer was: ‘Tell Steve to do all the Opera House like that’. He was so happy.” Mr Tsoukalas said.

With the bicarb working on the concrete, Tsoukalas next tackled the bronze railings throughout the building. He quickly found a combination that worked: a mix of South Australian olive oil with a small amount of methylated spirits – the same solution that Mr Tsoukalas’ wife uses to rub her husband’s back when his sciatica plays up.

For several years, cleaners had applied bees wax to the bronze, but it had become as hard as steel. The olive oil softens and helps remove the wax. “My grandmother used to do something similar” Mr Tsoukalas said.

The untreated blue gum timber flooring is cleaned with a combination of washing soap flakes, and Kaolin fine grade clay dissolved in water. Chemical cleaning agents may permanently damage and darken the timber.

Staff have found the simple, eco-friendly methods achieve the same results as the chemical cleaning agents previously used. Mr Tsoukalas’s green solutions comply with Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) recommendations for products. 

The House’s environmental sustainability manager Emma Bombonato gives her tick of approval, saying the green cleaning guidelines developed by Mr Tsoukalas protect not only the building but also the environment, the staff and visitors.

“In terms of a conservation plan and world heritage, we want to ensure the building lasts,” Ms Bombonato said.

Using Mr Tsoukalas’s clean, green techniques, it seems this iconic building will be well kept for many years to come.

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Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.  


Laura                                             Chalk
Author: Laura Chalk

Laura joined Planet Ark in 2016. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience having travelled the world and a background in teaching English as a second language among other things.

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