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

3 comments:

  1. PS Just heard there's a Tiny House Festival, the first ever in Australia, in Bendigo, Victoria, 23-24 March 2019. See its facebook page for more info (facebook.com/TinyHousesAustralia). And thanks to Teresa Thiel for this!

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  2. PS: Thanks for mentioning Tiny Real Estate. There is another company in Australia that focuses on tiny house experience. You can check out tinyaway.com

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    1. Thanks Adam, and you're welcome, and yes I have heard of them. Since writing this post I keep hearing about more and more tiny house businesses, it's a housing revolution!

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