Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Climate action inspiration + COP26 hope (I hope)

I don't usually weigh in on world affairs here. I think about them, of course, as most of us do. Talk with friends. Take action where I can, particularly locally, and try to live low-impact ("no impact" is unattainable, of course; the name of my blog was always intended to be aspirational and playful, by the way, not prescriptive). But this feels different. The climate crisis makes it different.

Now that we're halfway through COP26 in Glasgow, I feel compelled to say something. Still not sure exactly what. What could I possibly say that might help?

So I'll start with this. Perhaps like you, I feel frustrated, disappointed and powerless as I watch this latest climate conference unfold. I feel a sort of national shame that Australia's prime minister fronted up with the bare minimum in terms of a climate policy, what amounted to "the price of admission" to Glasgow. 

I'm afraid, too, that COP26 will end like other COPs, with world leaders hearing stirring speeches - by the likes of Sir David Attenborough and Barack Obama - then failing to make rock-solid commitments that will stop global temperatures rising more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. 

There have been big gains made this time, I know. Historic agreements to reduce deforestationmethane emissions and investment in coal and increase funding to Indigenous conservation projects. It's not just governments making promises: hundreds of financial institutions in 45 countries agreed to limit greenhouse emissions. 

It was heartening to see travel, the industry I've been part of for more than 20 years, taking a stand with the new Glasgow Declaration, which urges tourism businesses of all kinds and sizes all over the world to reduce emissions by half by 2030. You can read my news stories about it and what it means for travellers here and here, and my interview with one of its chief architects and co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, Jeremy Smith, here.

Is it all enough? 

According to the International Energy Agency's latest analysis, if all the promises from COP26 are kept, and funded, the planet may not warm more than 1.8C by the end of this century. But it's a big "if", particularly when China and Russia didn't even attend this year's make-or-break conference.

What I keep coming back to in the midst of this fragile hope is that, powerful as world leaders are, the real leaders in this crisis are emerging from elsewhere. They're students like Greta. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Australian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, even multinational CEOs (and CSOs - Chief Sustainability Officers, it's a thing now!). They're already doing things some governments keep saying are impossible. In some industries, governments just need to get out of the way - oh, and stop subsiding the global fossil fuel industry to the tune of $500 billion a year. 

Want more hope? Here are a few more things I've found inspiring lately:

Watch

Greta Thunberg: A year to change the world is an excellent 3-part BBC doco now streaming on ABCiView (in Australia). It's full of insights and experts talking about what's happening to our planet, and what needs to happen to reverse that. And at the centre of it all is the now 18-year-old Swedish student who remains quietly powerful and incredibly human and open about things like her discomfort with crowds and chaos.

With every speech at every protest march and every conference, she fine-tunes her message: listen to the science, not to her, about what we need to do. I'm in awe of her.

Read

I've just finished reading Beyond Climate Grief, by science journalist and Catalyst presenter Jonica Newby. It's a fascinating and engaging deep-dive into the emotions swirling around the loss of our "heart places" due to the climate crisis and the aftermath of natural disasters, particularly the catastrophic 2019-20 bushfires in Australia, with insights from various people interviewed on where to go from here. 

I'll also read anything written by environmental author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot, like this story last week: COP26 has to be about keeping fossil fuels in the ground. All else is distraction. 

Listen

I could probably list a few podcasts about climate action here. But if you're like me, and feeling a bit swamped by all the climate news at the moment, you probably need to hear a little silence right now. Or the birds outside your window. Or the hush and rumble of the sea, if you live near the coast. 

I'd recommend being outside as much as possible too. Standing under the sky or the stars or the trees. Looking down at your feet on the ground. Here we are, living through this time together. It might not be a fair world, but no matter how old we are or where we live or how much money we have, or who we vote for, we'll all be affected by this climate crisis, if we haven't been already. Which means we're all invested in finding solutions.

Imagine

Sometimes when hope is thin on the ground and we feel powerless in the face of a crisis, I think we have to draw on another resource we all have: creativity. Imagination is more important than knowledge, Einstein famously said. Of course we need both, and we all need to find ways to act, wherever we are and using whatever abilities we have. 

But imagining is vital too. If we can see the future we want up ahead, it'll be easier to draw "roadmaps" to get us there. Imagine the power of collective imagining, all of us envisaging a cleaner, wiser future where we all live our lives knowing that every action we take - the food we eat, the vehicles we ride or drive, the homes we live in, the work we do, the people we vote for - is regenerating, supporting and contributing to a healthier planet, which in turn sustains us and all the other living beings we share it with. Wouldn't that be wonderful? 

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

9 things I learned from building a tiny house

As promised, a brief recap on what's been happening since my last real blog post, back in November 2020 when I was two months into building my tiny house. I'm not going to give you a blow-by-blow description of the build - the highs, the lows, the new words I learned! (For that, and LOTS of pics, head to my No Impact Girl page on Facebook.) 

Instead, I thought I'd try to distill the past several months - until I moved into the tiny in March this year - into a few lessons learned. Here goes...

First, DIY building is completely all-consuming. And kinda thrilling for that. I've never experienced anything like it. It challenges you on every level: mental, physical, emotional, logistical, relational, creative... 

Being my first build, everything was new and interesting. The learning curve was so steep it was almost vertical. Every day I was doing something I'd never done before, learning about things I'd never thought about before, learning about myself and, yes, learning new words I'd never even heard before (like "shim" and "round bastard"). 

Another big lesson was that when you finish the exterior of your house, you're not even close to being halfway. It's a common misconception: you build a frame, clad it, put a roof on it and install the windows, then you're on the home stretch, right? Nup. On my build, the externals took about three months; the interior took almost twice as long (and I'm still tinkering!).

Here are 7 more things I learned from building the tiny:

1. 
Repetition rests your mind. When you've been making dozens of decisions a day, for months, spending four days on your knees with a belt-sander (sanding the hardwood flooring) is noisy bliss (ear muffs help). I loved being able to focus on this one job, think about one thing for a while. Another job I enjoyed was punching nails: using a hammer, a nail-punch and wood putty to hide hundreds of nails in the plywood panels on the ceiling and internal walls. It was slow, repetitive work and I loved it. 

2. You get to know a lot - for a while. I'm not sure if this is a DIY thing or just because I'm a curious person, but a few months into the build I felt like the Rain Man of tiny houses, or my tiny house anyway. I knew everything about every element of it, every material we used, where it came from, the pros and cons of various cladding, insulation, paint and flooring options. It was all so fascinating to me and I was neck-deep in it all, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else in my life. (I can probably still tell you the dimensions of each one of my 13 windows...).

3. Every house has its own timeline. Professional builders can build a tiny house in three months. That was never going to happen for us, and it didn't have to - we had no deadline, which let the project go at its own pace. And we were lucky; Covid created material shortages at Bunnings and other suppliers, but we started early enough that there were no big delays. 

As for the budget, I'd aimed for about $60,000, but I had no idea what anything cost before we started and I ended up splurging on a few items - such as my gas-strut window ($2300) and the stairs, which we outsourced to a furniture maker (about $6500). So my final spend was just under $80,000, which I was happy with. 

4. I love making things! Two of the lovely things that happened to me during this project were that I learned lots of practical new skills, and I gained the confidence to have a go at making things. 

Towards the end of the build, I started making little things for my little house: wooden buttons and flowers, curtains and cushions, boxes and shelving units, a spotted gum bench seat for my new deck. I'm still a rookie but I love messing about with wood; my favourite part is oiling the finished piece at the end, seeing the grain reveal itself.

5. A tiny house is still a house. This was one of the big lessons of this build. Tiny houses might be small and relatively unregulated - which gives you the rare opportunity to build your own home - but they still have all the bits that any house has: from framing and cladding to windows, lights and plumbing, depending on where you want it to be on the rustic-luxe spectrum.

6. Building is creative! I never realised how much creative problem-solving happens on a building site. Every. Single. Day. Even when you have skills, every build presents unique problems or issues to deal with. And experienced builders are always thinking ahead, so that what they're working on now will fit with what they'll be working on in four days' or weeks' time. 

7. Moving in before completion is a good idea. It sounds counterintuitive, but moving in before my house was finished - when I still had to climb a builder's ladder to my bed loft and I was using milk crates for furniture - was really helpful. I got to see how I used the space, how my body wanted to move between tasks, where I wanted to put things - which informed our last decisions.

*

And I haven't even touched on the psychological lessons. There were lots of those too. Such as: Learning when to push on, and when to take a break. How to be with anxiety and self-doubt when you don't know what you're doing - and how to self-soothe with things like swimming, writing and unstructured nature-time. 

It's probably possible to build a house by yourself, but why would you want to? So many of the joys of this build came from sharing bits of it with friends - and with Mr No Impact Girl. 

I learned so much from him, on so many levels, while we designed the tiny then worked on it together pretty much every day for eight months, and I'll always feel an immense gratitude for all he's done to make this happen. 

Now the build is finished, I kinda miss it - the focus, the sense of purpose, the physicality of it, the constant learning and the satisfaction of seeing my little house take shape every day. It was without a doubt the biggest adventure of my life. And I'll probably be processing it, and all it taught me, for a while yet. 

Monday, 18 October 2021

Talking tiny, candidly

If you've been following my No Impact Girl facebook page - where I've been posting almost-weekly updates of my tiny house build - you'll know that the tiny house is finished! Officially, I moved into the tiny in March and we (Mr No Impact Girl and I) finished all the essential bits in May this year. 

Unofficially, I finished making the last big thing - a pine storage unit for my bed loft - only a few weeks ago. So apart from a few shelves and hooks and cushions, I can pretty safely say, "It's done!" 

I'm planning to write a couple of posts here - including one or two I intended to write during the build but was too busy (and exhausted) to even think about - as well as a book about the tiny build experience (that might take a little longer). 

As a travel writer I couldn't help relating to the whole experience as if it were a (very) long trip to a place I'd never been. Which meant documenting it all. I filled three A4 notebooks, took countless photos and wrote all those Facebook posts... 

In the meantime, here's a snapshot of the build in non-written form: Shannon Schultz, from Fred's Tiny Houses, where I bought my purpose-built tiny house trailer, interviewed me a few months ago for her new podcast, Candid Tiny House. My episode went live a couple of days ago and it's lovely. 

There's a 20-minute video tour of the tiny (including lots of extra pics) and a 30-minute podcast featuring yours truly talking in more detail about the build and about living tiny. Just head to Shannon's Candid Tiny House (that's the link to her website) or search for "Candid Tiny House" on your preferred podcast app.

More soon! 

Monday, 9 August 2021

A small tiny house hello

A year ago this month, in August 2020, I took delivery of a 7.2-metre galvanised steel trailer - the foundations for my tiny-house-to-be. It's been a momentous year (and a half) for all of us, all over the world, in so many ways. In my corner of it, building my tiny home was one of the biggest adventures of my life. It took everything I had, body, mind, heart and soul. I think that's why it's also been one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.


The build itself took eight months - it officially ended in May this year, two months after I moved in - but I'm still tinkering and making shelving and other bits inside. Still processing the experience too. And learning to slow down after a full-on year. Which is why I haven't written here for a while. 

But a new post is coming soon (I promise!) or maybe a series of them, about the experience of building a tiny and about what living tiny is really like. 

In the meantime, I'm still posting pics and updates every week or two on my No Impact Facebook page if you'd like to see how my little 25-square-metre home looks now. 

Thanks for your patience and wherever you are, please stay safe and well.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

My life is a tiny house (and I love that)

This is real. Every day I say this to myself and I still can't really believe it: I'm building a tiny house. But here I am halfway through Week 8 of the build (see my previous post on how it started) and my hand-drawn plans - in pencil, on graph paper - have become a little house I can walk around in (if not actually move into, yet). 

My tiny life, so far
When I say "I", I mean "we" - I'm effectively an owner-builder apprentice working with and learning from my two co-workers, Mr No Impact Girl (a skilled woodworker and general handyman) and his builder mate Frankie.

And it's been all-consuming, in a good way. I'm inhabiting a tiny house bubble, body, mind and soul, and I love the intensity of it, that deadline feeling that focuses life onto whatever it is you need to do next (on my to-do list this week: finalise kitchen design, research timber slabs for benchtop, finish cedar cladding...).


While I haven't had much headspace to write here, I have been posting on my No Impact Girl facebook page - that's the best place to go for weekly updates - measuring my progress in pics, time-lapse videos and still-life snapshots of little things I see on the build (see pic, right).

Here are a few highlights so far to catch you up: 

The frame went up! When the tiny went from being a two-dimensional drawing on a page to a three-dimensional timber-frame skeleton, that was big. Suddenly I could step into it, look out its window-holes and feel relieved that all my hard-thinking (and middle-of-the-night worrying) about various design elements had paid off. Here's a time-lapse of the frame going up:

There's something empowering about knowing your home inside out, how it fits together, what holds things up, and I probably know this tiny better than I've known anything else in my life.


The tiny house was blessed (sort of).
Before we laid the hardwood floor, I started writing a few positive words on the plywood sub-flooring underneath, just for me, never to be seen again but hopefully felt when I'm living in the house. I'd seen someone else do this on their timber frame and thought it was a cool idea. What I didn't realise until I did it was how much it calmed and settled me, particularly when I felt anxious about, you know, not having a clue what I was doing. 

Then I started scrawling quotes by some of my favourite nature writers: Mary Oliver, Edward Abbey, John Muir. One Saturday afternoon I invited a few friends over for tea and asked them to write on the bracing ply walls. It felt like an informal "blessing of the tiny" and it made my heart sing to see everyone happily chatting and eating scones and standing in my little house-to-be, filling it with love and friendship. 


I spent my first night in the tiny! Before the roof went on, Mr No Impact Girl and I dragged a foam mattress from his van into the tiny, put up a temporary plywood floor in my bed loft and fell asleep looking up at the stars twinkling through the wind-tossed trees all around us. In the morning: a cacophany of birdsong and sunshine streaming in the high window-holes. A preview of mornings to come...

The roof went on, a couple of weeks ago. That's a milestone on any build and we celebrated not with the traditional case of beer but with bottles of kombucha and some healthy chocolate fudge (well, this is northern NSW). We were also celebrating the fact that all the steel we used was reused from other builds, not bought new; I wish I could say this for more of the building materials, but every bit of recycled material helps.


The windows are in! Last week, the last of the 13 windows went in and they look beautiful, black-framing the surrounding greenery. Every day the little house changes shape, even slightly, as new features are added or tweaked. But seeing the first windows installed (and they didn't take long) was amazing. 

This week, the cladding is going up: western red cedar (beautiful, super-lightweight, weather-resistant) climbing the walls of my tiny, plank by plank; and a few panels of dark grey Colorbond steel, which perfectly complements the woodsy cedar, as it turns out (another "phew" moment). 

Then the outside will be all but done - and there will be a world of new decisions to make about fitting out the interior. That's life on a tiny house build...

Ready to learn
Pic by Caro Ryan
There have been challenges, of course. Anxieties and tears and misunderstandings. And, with them, learnings of all kinds, inside and out. And surprise: at how much I'm enjoying the process, particularly the physicality of it, a sweet change from desk work. 

I'm gaining confidence, getting stronger. Doing things I wouldn't have dreamed I'd be able to do two months ago. Watching my doubts (am I doing this right? what if I mess it up?) and trying to just let them be there. 

And even when I have to step back and let the others do jobs I'm not skilled enough to do, just seeing up close my little house growing feels like a privilege. A once-in-a-lifetime thing. A wild and crazy trip that is, well, my life right now. And there's nowhere else I'd rather be. 

Here's the link again to my No Impact Girl facebook page for more regular updates than I can post here. Thanks for following, lovely friends.