Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Small is beautiful: How to build a tiny house

It probably started with my first cubbyhouse. Dad built it for my brother and me, onto the paling fence in the backyard of the first house we ever lived in, in leafy northern Sydney. It was so small you could reach out and touch both walls without even trying, it had tiny stairs leading up to its tiny porch and two windows with curtains (made by Mum) and I loved it. 

Tent living in the Philippines
My love of small dwellings soon leaked out in other ways. I've always loved sleeping in tents, the simplicity of having everything you need within arm’s reach and a world of spaciousness just outside. I loved the long summers our family spent living out of a campervan at Trial Bay on the NSW mid-north coast.

When I started travelling further afield, my love of cosy spaces was expressed by staying in felted gers in Mongolia, a tipi in Portugal, safari tents in Africa, mountain huts in New Zealand, and ship’s cabins everywhere from the Amazon to Antarctica. 

My cabin away from home
south of Oslo, Norway
Then, in 2014, I spent two weeks in a cabin in Norway, alone. My tiny-house heart had found its way home. 

My tiny house obsession
Since then I’ve become slightly obsessed with tiny houses, I think because, for me, they marry simplicity, low-impact living (a small footprint means low energy use) and freedom (from mortgage or rental servitude), with a dash of earthy minimalism and Scandinavian "hygge"-ness (a Danish word referring to a feeling of cosiness, comfort and simple pleasures). It doesn't hurt that they're also cheaper to build than a regular house.

A tiny house for writers!
Pic by Inhabitat
"Tiny houses" aren't just extra-small dwellings, by the way. Most are built on trailers, to allow them to sidestep council regulations that cover fixed structures. 

They tend to be about 7m long, 2.5m wide and up to 4.3m high - to allow space for a loft bed over the living area or kitchen, to maximise floor space - with a footprint of 30-40 square metres (considerably less than the 189 square metres of the average new home in Australia). 

I’ve watched countless Living Big in a Tiny House clips on YouTube and the beautiful Small is Beautiful doco about the tiny house movement in the US (Minimalism is also great, and on Netflix). I've subscribed to Cabin Porn and read their first book (a new one is in the works, on cabin interiors). My web browser is bursting at the seams with bookmarked links to earthships and treehouses and kit cabins and shipping container houses. 

With tiny house guru Fred Schultz 
How to build a tiny house
Last weekend I took another step forward on the path that seems to be leading me towards tiny house living: I did a weekend workshop run by Fred Schultz of Fred’s Tiny Houses

It was a revelation. Fred is a talented teacher, a generous soul and a passionate tiny house advocate. A true believer in the liberating power of tiny house living, he's keen to share all he's learned (the hard way) through years of building and living in his own tiny house, with his partner Shannon and their children, in Castlemaine, Victoria. 

Fred's tiny house with awnings
in Castlemaine, Victoria
There were four 3-hour workshops over two days, covering everything you need to know about trailers, making your tiny house off-grid, where you can legally build and live in a tiny house (in Australia) and how to build one (including how to speak "builder" at the timber yard). Here are just a few things I learned last weekend:

8 things I learned from Fred
1. Humans have always lived in small dwellings (think igloos, gunyahs, yurts, tipis), well until the recent rush of consumerism and the desire for big houses. We're built to live in small houses that keep us connected to nature.
2. The recent tiny house movement began in North America, led by Jay Shafer and Dee Williams, where tiny houses mostly need to protect their inhabitants from snow and cold; Australian tiny houses, by contrast, need to be insulated against extreme heat and cross-ventilation.
3. Tiny houses are so new there aren't any regulations covering where you can build or live in them. No council in Australia has a permit system for tiny houses but it's coming soon; Casey Council in Victoria might be the first, and Fred has been working with them about it
4. Until then, tiny houses on wheels are legally classified as caravans - so they have to be registered and road-worthy. Of course they're better than caravans, mainly because tiny houses are built to last.
5. Tiny houses have to be built to withstand being towed behind a vehicle; as a result, they're often (or should be) more solid than cabins or fixed foundation homes.
6. Living off-grid, not dependent on mains electricity or town water, is easier than it sounds. It's all about solar batteries, building near a water source if you can - and composting toilets!
7. Weight is everything in tiny house land - which means weighing all your building materials and everything you own so you don't exceed the maximum legal towing weight of 4500kg.
8. You can design and build your own house, and plenty of sane people have. Fred gave us a brief introduction to Sketchup 3D modelling software (he also designs and builds tiny houses for a living).

Last Sunday also happened to be Sustainable House Day, when people all over Australia welcome strangers into their passive solar, low-impact, sustainable homes. And there happened to be a tiny house on display just down the road from where we were doing the workshop, built by Brisbane Tiny Houses.
Not the tiny house we visited
(this one is from an ABC article)

It was the first time I’d actually been into a tiny house. The one we visited wasn’t as earthy as I’d like, but it was surprisingly spacious, gave me a few ideas; it was also interesting to hear Fred’s take on its design features.

Inside Fred's tiny house
(family not included)
Tiny houses are everywhere
The next step for me is to actually stay in a tiny house, to really feel how I might use the space and what features I might (and might not) need. First stop: the tiny off-grid house that Fred built (available through Airbnb, see Fred’s TinyHouse), the next time I'm in Victoria. 

In a sign of the times, there are more ways to do a tiny house stay than ever before: Unyoked has six beautiful tiny houses in secret bushland locations within a 2-hour drive of Sydney and Melbourne, Cabn has (so far) one off-grid tiny house in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia; and In2thewild has 10 cottage-like tiny houses close to Sydney, Canberra and Wollongong.

Brendan, Tas, Christian
and their (very) tiny house
There are Tiny House Real Estate agents, websites where you can buy Tiny House Plans and dozens of tiny house builders. There's aAustralian Tiny House Association based in Melbourne.

My friend Brendan's son Tas even designed and built a tiny house model for a school project.

Liberate yourself*
If you've ever daydreamed about tiny house living, about liberating yourself from the burden of stuff and mortgage payments and paying rent and having more time to do the things you love, do yourself a favour and sign up for one of Fred's weekend workshops. (This is not a sponsored post, incidentally; I paid my own way.)

One of Unyoked's tiny houses
south of Sydney
Not only will you learn more in two days than you ever could by doing your own research, you'll get to meet Fred and become part of a supportive community (with its own Facebook page), both of which will be invaluable when you're ready to take the leap and build, design and/or buy your own tiny house.

They might seem offbeat now, but tiny houses are the future, if we’re all to share this planet in harmony with each other and the natural environment and our fellow earthlings. Watch this space.

Fred runs tiny house workshops in various towns and cities across Australia, and you can do just one 3-hour workshop or a whole weekend of them. See Fred's Tiny Houses for the 2018/19 schedule. 

*Fred's Tiny Houses' motto

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

My (imaginary) Non-Fiction Book Club

I've never been in a book club. I read too slowly and for me reading is as solitary as writing and I like it that way. (Also, I don't like wine.) But if I were in one, it'd be a non-fiction book club.

Three of my favourite things
As much as I love a good story, I'm curious about the world. I studied zoology and psychology at uni - when tertiary education was free and you could study whatever interested you - and I still love learning about how the natural world works, and the human mind, how people and nature interact, how to live a rich and true life.

It's not about accumulating knowledge. A good non-fiction book is like a trip to a place you've heard about but never been to.

The Indian Ocean of wonder
It takes you out beyond the breakers of what you could ever know to a bottomless ocean of understanding and wonder, helping you see everything from this new vantage point and changing you in the process.

So welcome to my (virtual) Non-Fiction Book Club. Let's talk about books we've loved and learned from. I'll start.

Here are 8 of my favourite non-fiction reads this year (so far):

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - by Yuval Noah Harari
Written by an Israeli historian, this is hands-down one of the most extraordinary and enlightening books I've ever read. It "spring cleans" your mind, as one reviewer put it, enlisting some of history's sisters - anthropology, biology, economic theory, theology, sociology and other disciplines - to explore where we came from, what makes us human and can "progress" make us happier?

It's astounding in its scope too, starting 2 million years ago when there were six species of humans (Homo sapiens became dominant about 70,000 years ago), passing through cognitive, agricultural and scientific revolutions (as Harari calls them) and ending with the current capitalist and climate crises. Translated from the Hebrew first edition, the writing is surprisingly clear and bold. It's a book to be read slowly, letting the ideas sink in and reframe the world we live in.

Eating Animals - by Jonathan Safran Foer
You might recognise Foer's name; he wrote Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). This book was his first foray into non-fiction and it's powerful. Inspired by the birth of his son and a desire to choose foods that nourish him, Foer spent three years researching how meat comes to our tables, then used his considerable creativity to craft a compelling argument for not eating animals (he became a vegetarian in the process).

Foer doesn't hold back from detailing the brutality and cruelty of factory-farming and although the book is US-centric, America is not alone in the way it treats the animals it eats, particularly at the slaughter end of their short lives. (There's a new doco, Dominion, about the way we treat animals in Australia; just watching the trailer made me cry.) A must-read for anyone who eats any kind of meat (yes, including fish).

Cabin Porn - edited by Zach Klein
If you haven't heard of this one, it's not what you think! What began as a communal project in 2008 whereby anyone, anywhere in the world, could post a photo of a cabin -or a shack or a treehouse - in a wild setting to the website, has grown into a beautiful little book subtitled "Inspiration for your quiet place somewhere".

As well as 10 inspiring stories about people who have built their dream cabins, or yurts or converted grain silos, the book features more than 200 incredible cabin pics from the website (hand-picked from more than 12,000 images, and counting).

I love this quote at the start: "Inside each of us is a home ready to be built. It takes a supply of ambition and materials to construct a cabin, but the reward is handsome: a shelter for yourself somewhere quiet and a place to offer warm hospitality to friends."

First, we make the beast beautiful - by Sarah Wilson
I didn't expect to love this book as much as I did. Didn't expect to like Sarah Wilson's writing as much as I do (because she used to edit women's magazines and has become a bit of a health and wellbeing guru). But this is a beautiful book, "a new story about anxiety", hers and ours, told with unflinching honesty, curiosity and kindness.

It's a book for anyone who has ever felt a twinge of anxiety or self-doubt, and who hasn't? It's raw and real, confessional and creative, hopeful and helpful and playful, with chapters and exercises called, for instance, "back the fuck off" and "sit on a small bench with yourself". I've dog-eared so many pages, as breadcrumbs to lead me back to bits I loved, it looks like origami.

Utopia for realists - Rutger Bregman
I loved the title straight away, but didn't expect to love a book about economic theory. This bestseller by a young Dutch historian and author is about the concept of a Universal Basic Income, whereby a government gives every citizen a basic living wage (say $1,000 a month) to cover essential expenses such as food and housing, regardless of their means or whether they work or not, replacing complicated welfare systems in the process.

Bregman explains everything in such a clear and entertaining way it's fascinating and uplifting: trials in countries such as Canada and England show that when given enough money to live on most people don't just sit on the couch all day binge-watching Netflix series; they work (doing what they love) and volunteer, become healthier and more creative and community-minded.

Here's a shorter read about why UBI costs less than you think and a link to Bregman's TED talk "Poverty isn't a lack of character, it's a lack of cash".

10% Happier - by Dan Harris
This one kept me company while I was trekking in Nepal earlier this year - via my Kindle, the best way to read in teahouses and tents without bedside lamps. It's written by an ambitious American news journalist and anchorman who stumbles onto meditation after having a nationally televised panic attack, but is sceptical at first because he thinks it's all woo-woo and doesn't want to lose his "edge". So he starts asking hard questions to find out what it's all about.

I've read dozens of books about meditation, most by meditation teachers, but what makes this one fresh, funny and inspiring is Harris' matter-of-fact style and the fact that he's looking at meditation from the outside and demystifying it. He's now a convert to mindfulness-based meditation taught by the likes of Joseph Goldstein and has a website, a podcast and an app: 10% Happier: Meditation for Fidgety Sceptics.

Changing Gears - by Greg Foyster
Jo Nemeth (aka Jo Low Impact) recommended this one to me when I interviewed her last year; she found it so inspiring she gave up using money, for good, three years ago. It's about Greg Foyster, a journalist working in advertising who decides to quit his job to live more simply and sustainably.

But first, he and his like-minded girlfriend Sophie decide to ride their bikes from Melbourne to Cairns; along the way, they arrange to meet people who have chosen to simplify their lives in various ways, from tree-dwellers to barefoot monks.

The cartoon cover doesn't do this book justice; it tackles big questions about how we live, and how we could live. It also feels like two books in one: the simple-living stories they encounters, which are all fascinating, and Foyster's own joys, realisations and struggles as they head north then back to Melbourne. An inspirational resource for your inner minimalist.

Woman in the Wilderness - by Miriam Lancewood
Is there anything better than an adventure story that's true? Don't be fooled by this book's cover, the photo of Miriam Lancewood, a statuesque Dutch beauty wearing a possum-skin vest she made herself (possums being pests in New Zealand), one hand on the hunting knife in the belt of her shorts. She's the real deal.

Originally from Holland, she met her husband Peter in India and together they spent seven years living simply and close to nature in the wilds of NZ, his home country, including: a year in wilderness huts, a year driving off track to various forest campsites and a year walking Te Araroa (the 3000km hiking trail that runs from one end of NZ to the other).

It's an incredible story, about what we are capable of, how far we have drifted from living natural lives, the mental as well as physical challenges of living wild, and she and Peter are deep-thinkers; some of the most interesting bits are about their relationships to their surroundings and to each other.

It seems I do love talking about books. Who knew? Now it's your turn. What books have you loved lately, non-fiction or fiction?

Monday, 20 August 2018

A win for sustainable travel

This is a sneaky short post to make an announcement, if you'll forgive me for blowing my own conch shell. I won an award at the annual Australian Society of Travel Writers awards night in Bangkok last weekend, for Best Responsible Travel Story of 2018. Yay!

I (heart) Jordan
My winning story is about the extraordinary, other-worldly Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan. I stayed for just one night - the first night of a six-day trek I did last year - but was so bowled over by the place, by its solid sustainable and ethical credentials, I managed to rave for 700 words about it. Here's the story link.

But this post isn't just about me. It's also about the rise of sustainable thinking in travel since the ASTW first introduced this award more than a decade ago.

Award sponsor Intrepid Travel, which has been carbon-neutral since 2010 and last week became a certified B Corp (by putting purpose before profit, see link for more info), is one operator committed to making the world a better place through travel.

Tread lightly, travel barefoot
Another is World Expeditions, which runs forums on responsible travel and put together its own free Thoughtful Traveller guidebook. I mentioned others reducing single-use plastics in a story I wrote for Escape recently, 8 tips for plastic-free travel.

It's also heartening to see more of my fellow travel writers sidestepping the gloss to cover travel experiences that raise awareness and make a difference; my mate Chris Retschlag is one of them - see her recent post about human trafficking in Nepal.

With more than 8 billion of us travelling overseas each year now, travelling thoughtfully is more important than ever. How about you - got any tips for making travel more sustainable?


Big thanks to Intrepid for sponsoring this award again, to Fairfax Traveller for publishing my story, and to Experience Jordan and the Adventure Travel Trade Association for hosting me in incredible, wonderful Jordan.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Changing the world, one Boomerang Bag at a time

Now that we're in neck-deep in Plastic Free July, which is all about reducing our use of single-use plastics, it seems timely to write about a project I've been involved in for the past year (but which launched last month): Boomerang Bags.

Aren't they beautiful?
What are Boomerang Bags? 
They're reusable shopping bags made with love by volunteers from recycled fabric and given away or sold at local shops to reduce the use of plastic bags (one of the Big Four plastic evils of modern life along with coffee cups, plastic straws and water bottles).

I first heard about them early last year on Norfolk Island, which is big on low-impact living. Each bag had a distinctive boomerang-shaped logo on it and a label that said, "Sustainably sewn on Norfolk Island". How cool, I thought. Then: if this little island (population 1600) can do it, maybe our little seaside town could too.

I'd been wanting to get involved in a local environmental project and as a surfer living by the sea I loved the idea of doing something to help reduce the use of plastic bags, which often find their way into our waterways and from there into the bellies of seabirds and turtles and other marine animals.

Team Boomerang: Monica,
me, Shaun and Kelly
Meanwhile Monica Wilcox, president of Lennox Head Residents' Association, was looking for a positive community project. We got talking, with Kelly Saunderson and Shaun Eastment, two other inspirational women who care deeply about community and the natural environment, and Boomerang Bags Lennox Head was born.

The last time I sat
at a sewing machine
No sewing required!
Not only is this the first time I've helped set up a community group, I'm no sew-er (despite the fact that my late mum made all my clothes when I was growing up; sorry, Mum!).

I have actually sat down at a sewing machine once or twice, under close supervision, at a couple of our sewing bees, but I still feel more at home in front of a laptop.

Fortunately there are plenty of other things to do at our twice-monthly sewing bees, such as ironing, sorting and cutting fabric, screen-printing and counting bags - we've made about 700 since we started the sewing bees in September last year.

And it's not just about making bags. It's about being part of a global Boomerang Bags movement set up in 2013 by friends Tania Potts and Jordyn de Boer in Burleigh Heads, south-east Queensland. There are now more than 775 Boomerang Bags communities all over the world and together we've made more than 200,000 Boomerang Bags!

Boomerang Bags HQ helps people set up these communities and supports us all in various ways, providing everything from bag-making patterns to logos to moral support. Their website also has a map to help people find their nearest BB community.

We've got BOTH kinds of bags
Borrow or buy?
The original idea was that people would return the shopping bags, like boomerangs, to the shops they had borrowed them from, but Boomerang Bags HQ has tweaked that model (because the bag-return rate was low in some communities).

So we're making two kinds of bags: Borrow & Reuse (available for free in four small grocery shops in Lennox*) and Bought to Support (sold for $5 so that customers can keep them*).

Old jeans become new bags!
And everyone seems to love them. When we launched at last month's Love Lennox festival, we sold 104 bags (!), all different patterns, colours and styles.

We even have bags made out of jeans (thanks to the talented Mr Spider, our only male sew-er).

It was accidentally perfect timing, with IGA, Coles and Woolworths supermarkets across Australia phasing out single-use plastic bags around the same time and with #plasticfreejuly just around the corner.

People power
What really blows me away about Boomerang Bags, however, is that it involves so many parts of the community - and everyone is so positive about it. The shop owners who distribute the bags, the library staff who have supported us from day one and still collect fabric donations, the local businesses donating pre-loved curtains and cushion covers. Ballina Shire Council funds our room hire for the sewing bees; local media outlets such as the Lennox Wave and Ballina Advocate have helped us spread the word.

Of course none of it would be possible without our wonderful volunteers. We have about 15 regulars and they all seem to really love being part of it. Many turn up at a sewing bee with an armful of bags, sometimes as many as 20, they'd made at home in their spare time.

Jacqui in action
"I love going to the sewing bees in Lennox because it's social, good for the environment and creative all at once," says Jacqui Lachmann, who has been sewing for us from the start and has been doing her own Plastic Free July Challenge this month, summing it up perfectly.

As for me, I love that this has connected me with like-minded people I might not have met otherwise, given me a taste of "craftivism" (doing creative work for a good cause) and renewed my faith in people power. Oh, and it's fun!

Our next challenge is to make sure we don't run out of bags or turn into a bag-making co-op - or sweatshop. We keep reminding ourselves that the bags are a catalyst, a means to an end. It was never about making sure every Lennox local has a Boomerang Bag (though I would love to see Lennox plastic-bag free one day). It's about rethinking how we use plastic in our daily lives and changing the world, one reusable shopping bag at a time.


Our first bags for sale at Love Lennox
*Our Borrow & Reuse bags are available at the following shops in Lennox Head: Seagrass, Seed & Husk, Nixon Bulk Foods and Jordan's Farm. Bought to Support bags are available for $5 at the Lennox servo (The Station Grocer) and, from this week, IGA Lennox Head and The Lennox Hotel.

As a not-for-profit, any money we earn covers expenses such as thread and sewing machine repairs and the rest is donated to charities such as Australian Seabird Rescue.

For more info see our Boomerang Bags Lennox Head Facebook page and