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.

Monday, 10 August 2020

A new adventure: My tiny house project begins

Let me start this with a wish - that you and those around you are safe and well, in all ways, in these "interesting" times. The small town where I live by the sea in New South Wales has been spared the worst of it (so far) and I'm grateful for that. My travel wings have been clipped of course, but I'm surviving by the grace of the Australian government's wage subsidy and since lockdown my life has resumed fairly normal dimensions, albeit with more baking, winter beach-walking and veggie-growing than usual.

Tiny desk inspiration
from Vina's Tiny House
Covid-19 has also given me an unexpected bonus: time and energy to work on a new project - designing and building my own tiny house.

It's exciting and a bit daunting, possibly the biggest project I've ever taken on. One that involves thinking deeply and widely about how I want to live, what I really need, and how to make my new home as sustainable as possible, both during and after the build. (It helps that my "tiny" will have a floor area of only 25 square metres, but apparently building in the developed world accounts for 40 per cent of global carbon emissions.) 

So consider this my first progress report, with more to follow in the coming months.

Laying the "foundations"
My Norwegian cabin
(for two weeks, in 2014)
It's fair to say this tiny house adventure has been waiting to hatch for a while now. Ever since my dad built a cubby for my brother and me, when I was about 10, I've loved the simplicity of small spaces, an addiction that's easy to satisfy when one travels for a living. 

Just remembering all the tents and tatami rooms, earthships and beach shacks, treehouses and micro-hotels I've stayed in over the years, not to mention ships' cabins and a real cabin in the woods in Norway, makes me (and my inner introvert) feel happy and cosy inside.

So it was inevitable I'd get swept up in the tiny house movement. Though it's technically about dwellings with less than 37 square metres (400 square feet) of floorspace, it's really about living more simply, sustainably and communally. 

Lennox Head library finds
I did a natural building course four years ago, then a weekend "How to build a tiny house" workshop run by Fred's Tiny Houses in 2018 (now online through Fred's Tiny House University). I stayed in tiny houses and wrote about them for Traveller last year. I've borrowed books from the library and watched countless Living Big in a Tiny House and Never Too Small clips on YouTube.

All of which has been taking me in a new direction - at a glacial pace. I had a bit of money saved, but I didn't have a timeline in mind or a place to park a tiny house. Then 2020 came along, a friend told me I could build my tiny on his land, and I suddenly had time to design and plan. The stars were aligning. 

What's the plan?
Like a lot of tiny houses, mine will be on wheels, on a purpose-built trailer 7.2 metres (24 feet) long and 2.5m (8') wide - dimensions that make it roadworthy and able to be classified as a caravan in Australia, so it doesn't require a building permit. Unlike most caravans, however, it'll be 4.3m (14') high with two lofts (one for sleeping, one for lounging and meditation) and big windows, making it feel spacious and airy. 

Love this one: Hauslein's
Little Sojourner
To keep the costs down, I'm building it myself - with Mr No Impact Girl and a builder friend as well as various tradies (Aussie for "tradesmen") we know who are sparkies (electricians) and chippies (carpenters), painters and plumbers.

Naturally I want to make it as low-impact as possible. 

We'll be using natural, sustainably sourced and/or recycled materials whenever we can. Friends have given us surplus timber for a deck. When neighbours cut down a camphor laurel tree recently, we scored some slabs for stair treads. We've bought and found second-hand a kitchen sink, a bathroom basin, hardwood flooring and some corrugated steel panels. 

And this one: by French 
tiny designer Baluchon
My vision is a sort of contemporary cabin with lots of wood. There'll be a desk under a big north-facing window, stairs up to my loft bed, a galley kitchen, a deck (with an outdoor bath!) and a bathroom with shower and composting toilet. And it'll be off-grid with solar panels, tank water and gas for cooking and hot water.

Pre-build preparations
Things got real about a month ago when I ordered a galvanised steel trailer from Fred's Tiny Houses (which has arguably THE best tiny trailers in Australia). After being a semi-nomadic renter for almost 30 years, it felt like a big step.

A masking-tape map
of my tiny house
Until the trailer is delivered in September and we can start building the tiny house on it, I'm filling my days (and some nights) with tiny thoughts. 

I'm finalising the floor plans - the low-tech way, with a pencil and ruler on graph paper, sometimes mapping them out on the floor (and the beach) to see how the spaces feel. Ordering windows (who knew windows required so much thought?). Researching everything from western red cedar and Colorbond cladding to sustainable insulation (hemp vs sheep's wool vs recycled polyester batts) and how all the elements fit together.

I'm doing my best to prepare myself for the hands-on part too. Bought myself a tool belt, a tape measure, safety glasses and a pair of ear muffs. A few weeks ago, I did a short, super encouraging woodworking course run by women, through Shedding in Mullumbimby. 

Ta da! My first woodworking 
assignment, ever
Then I practised my new carpentry (and power tool) skills by rebuilding a chair and a table with some old hardwood floorboards - under the watchful and very patient eyes of Mr No Impact Girl. 

Lessons learned so far
Already this tiny house is changing my life in surprising ways. It's making me stop and look and take an interest in built structures I come across, see my surroundings with new eyes, think about space and how we use it, take pictures of windows and door frames, roof angles and cladding. 

I'm on a near-vertical learning curve and it's totally absorbing, engaging on every level. It's like visiting a new country, where I don't speak the language - although I am learning to speak "builder" (by talking in millimetres, for instance). I often feel lost and disoriented, but I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing right now. And I'm learning new things every day.

Here are five of my most recent lessons:

A tiny house door
doubles as a window
1. Things have standard dimensions. Who knew that most kitchen benchtops, in Australia at least, are 900mm high or that doors are 820mm wide? Not me. I've gone from being a word-nerd to a building nerd. Instead of always carrying a notebook, I now take my tape measure wherever I go and measure things like windows and couches that I like the look of.
2. Compromise is part of the deal. Building an all-natural tiny house made of recycled this and ethically sourced that might be possible with unlimited time and money, but for most of us it's about doing our best to build the most beautiful, liveable and sustainable tiny house we can with the resources we have. 
Oh, and the most sustainable building materials are often NOT the most readily available, so finding them can take time and commitment. 
3. The learning happens whether you're aware of it or not. Some days I'd spend hours online and feel as if I've made zero progress - until a builder friend told me that just doing the research gives me knowledge that will help with future decisions. I've also learned the value of beginner-to-beginner advice, particularly on Australian Tiny Houses, one of the most useful tiny house Facebook groups I've found, where everyone helps each other.
4. Even small houses are complex. Although the point of tiny house living is to simplify life, building any kind of house makes life complicated, for a while at least. Tiny houses also have added challenges: they have to be well-designed (to maximise the use of space), lightweight and roadworthy, and well-ventilated (unlike their North American counterparts where keeping warm is an issue, Australian tiny houses need to stay cool in summer, particularly where I live).
5. I can do this! The more I learn and talk to people about this project, the more convinced I become that it's all going to be ok. Sure I'm going to be out of my comfort zone for the next few months, possibly longer, and I'm going to make plenty of mistakes, but I'm learning how to be more wabi sabi (at one with imperfection) and trying to trust the process.

Making friends with power tools
Besides, as one tiny house guru put it, you never really build a tiny house on your own. I've experienced this already, been humbled by friends offering to help plan or paint or put up the timber framing (I'm picturing an Amish barn-raising, which I realise is totally unrealistic for a seven-metre house, but it makes me smile). 

There's a quote I love that's often attributed to Goethe*: "Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid." A fitting mantra, I think, for this tiny house adventure. 

And a gentle reminder that there's very little in life we do entirely on our own. We're all interconnected, interdependent, in big and small ways. Takes the pressure off, doesn't it? And isn't it amazing when what you need - a tool, a book, a kind word - appears as if by magic at the very moment you need it? 

~

Stay tuned for updates and wander over to my No Impact Girl Facebook page for pics when the build starts in September...

*Even Cameron Crowe gave Goethe credit for this quote in his movie Almost Famous, but the real author  was apparently Canadian clergyman Basil King who wrote in 1921, "Go at it boldly and you'll find unexpected forces closing around you and coming to your aid." (Yep, I'm still a word-nerd, and always will be.)

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

A postcard from home, with love and wonder

"For most of our time on this planet, people usually spent their lives within a few hundred miles of where they were born, doing much the same thing each day with the same people in their band or village, embedded in a culture that changed little from century to century," says psychologist and author Dr Rick Hanson* in a weekly e-missive that landed in my inbox recently.

"These external factors provided a stable sense of home, but they are largely tattered, even shattered, today," he says. Until now.

In other words: it's natural to be home, despite our nomadic roots and our lifestyles of the past generation or so fooling us into thinking otherwise.

Footpath sign of the times
The experiment
I've been thinking a lot about this global social experiment we're all taking part in thanks to COVID-19, wondering how being confined for a while to our homes and our neighbourhoods might change us in the long-term. What will we gain, and lose?

I'm not ignoring the suffering the virus and its accompanying lockdowns, shutdowns and travel bans have brought to many. We might be all in the same boat, but we're not in the same storm, as someone said on social media the other day. For some of us, this might be a relatively peaceful pause in "normal" transmission; for others it's a life-changing hurricane, washing them out to sea and the unknown on a serious scale.

Exactly
Meanwhile the planet and its non-human inhabitants are getting a much-needed break from the "plague on the Earth" as Sir David Attenborough has called humankind. (His new doco looks great, by the way, about how the world can stop climate breakdown.)

Coronavirus cabin fever
Like a lot of people, I've been on an emotional see-saw for the past six weeks or so, which is one reason this post has been a long time coming. With everything constantly changing, on the inside as well as out there, I haven't quite known what to say.

At first, I overdosed on news, grimly fascinated by the speed with which everything, everywhere, shut down. I got anxious and overwhelmed. Then came a sense of solidarity and connection; we were all in this together, everyone was checking in on each other. Right now I feel a sort of coronavirus calm, as I settle into this new normal.

Toeing the social distancing line
I'm grounded, of course, like everyone, thankful not to have been stranded far from home when countries began to close their borders. And officially unemployed; I sent off my last commissioned travel story a week ago.

Concerned friends have asked if I miss travel, which is understandable. But I don't. Of course I love being away (and wrote about that in my most recent Traveller story Don't dream it's over), but travel has changed so much since I started travel writing 20 years ago and I've been growing increasingly uncomfortable with that.

Also (this might surprise some of you), I really love being home.

I'm aware that I'm undeservedly lucky to live where I do. Here in northern NSW, Australia, peace has settled on this little coastal town like a weighted blanket. Cafes and restaurants are open only for takeaways, events have been cancelled, shops are closed, people are staying home. There's less traffic on the roads. No tourists from out of town. Life is suddenly simpler.

The great slow-down
Unlike some of my colleagues, I don't want to use this precious time for professional development. I'm not planning to learn a new language or plotting where I'll go when borders re-open. As a writer, I'll always find something to do. But I don't want to be busy right now.

I want to slow down. And rest. To write when ideas surface, unforced and unhurried by deadlines, to be word-less sometimes, to make the most of this strange time to look around and experience where we are.

Homemade vegan fudge, mmm
So I'm cooking, mending, singing and decluttering. The things I am learning are practical and homely - how to bake bread, grow vegetables, make stuff with wood, skills that might be useful in coming years. (Global emissions might have dropped lately, but the climate crisis will be waiting for us when this is all over.)

Of course I'm slothing on the couch too and watching more movies than usual (DVDs in this low-tech household).

Worth getting up for
But I'm also waking up early more often to see sunrises, to surf or walk on the beach, to enjoy those perfect autumn mornings when the sea is brushed smooth by offshore winds and you get to see a few dolphins or a nesting osprey before breakfast.

I love that there's time now for reading on rainy afternoons and evening lake swims. Some nights I light candles instead of watching TV and go to bed early (8.30pm last night!), getting back in sync with nature's rhythms.

Seedlings from Forage & Graze
The post-pandemic world 
A few days ago, I had to drive a short way out of town to pick up some seedlings for my infant vegetable patch. It felt liberating to venture outside my home area for the first time in six weeks, to see familiar green hills, farmhouses and winding tree-lined roads with new eyes.

How will it be when we're allowed to travel further afield again, I wondered. What will travel look like in the post-pandemic world? The Guardian's George Monbiot and National Geographic scribe Andrew Evans, two writers I deeply admire, have written about this lately; click on their names to read their brilliant and timely stories.

"We have been living in a bubble... of false comfort and denial," writes Monbiot. "Now the membrane has ruptured, and we find ourselves naked and outraged, as the biology we appeared to have banished storms through our lives."

We're not above the natural laws that govern all life on earth, in other words, no matter how clever we have become at insulating ourselves from them.

We need to tread more lightly
We'll need to travel less I think, and differently, appreciate the world more, be less human-centric. Remember that travel is a privilege, not a right, and comes with responsibilities - to respect and protect the planet we live on and depend on, just as we naturally look after our homes.

"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew," says another great writer, Arundhati Roy. "This one is no different. It's a portal, a gateway between one world and the next."

I sure hope so. As we hurtle, more slowly for a while, towards a climate tipping point, I hope we grow wings and wisdom in time. Until then please stay safe and healthy and be kind to yourself and others in your orbit. We really are all in this together, now and always.

~

*A mental health footnote: Dr Rick Hanson has an excellent podcast, Being Well, full of compassion and practical tips for dealing with life's issues; it's my go-to podcast whenever I'm feeling stressed or anxious.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Can we justify travel in the era of climate change?

While I gather my thoughts on this crazy coronavirus time we're all living through, I thought I'd share an episode of the Thoughtful Travel podcast created by my Perth-based travel media friend, the lovely and talented Amanda Kendle, aka Not a Ballerina.

Patagonia sunrise, 2017
Like a lot of us, Amanda has been riding the see-saw of climate change vs travel for a while, wondering if it's possible to find a sweet spot that allows us to still travel, without destroying the planet.

This week she tackles this head on, in episode 183 of her podcast, Justifying travel in the era of climate change - which features yours truly. There's no short answer, by the way, but Amanda has an uncanny knack for putting her interview subjects completely at ease, which lets our chat wander into interesting territory.

(Please note: although the podcast went live yesterday our interview was recorded six weeks ago, before we all stopped travelling and the world took a breather from humans for a while).

If you like what you hear, there are 182 more Thoughtful Travel episodes here covering everything from travel anxiety to living overseas. I'm in two other episodes about Australian tourism after the bushfires and the joys of small group travel. Check out Amanda's thoughts on "thoughtful travel" and how to be a thoughtful traveller too.

Big thanks to Amanda Kendle for giving me these opportunities to air and share my views out loud for a change, instead of in written form.