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 have 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 on this. 
4. Until then, tiny houses on wheels are legally classified as caravans - which means 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; this 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 stepped into a tiny house. The one we visited wasn’t as earthy as I’d like, but it was surprisingly spacious and 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. 

Update, May 2020: Fred's tiny house-building workshops are now online at his new site, Tiny House University, so you can learn about tiny houses wherever you are (for $288 for 37 units and seven hours of video instruction). Meanwhile, Fred has reduced his carbon footprint by not travelling around Australia to run the face-to-face workshops. 

*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?