Monday, 9 September 2019

What Bob Brown said (at the TravelDAZE sustainable travel event)

One of the highlights of attending Travel Weekly's TravelDAZE sustainable travel event a couple of weeks ago was seeing Bob Brown, former Greens senator and long-time environmental campaigner, in person, and listening to his inspiring keynote speech. In his trademark regional Australian drawl he didn't pull any punches about the predicament we earthlings are facing right now, but he was also full of informed hope and fired-up to do something about it. 

How great is Greta?
I'm thinking about Bob this week because there's a Global Climate Strike happening next week, on Friday 20 September 2019. Unlike other climate action strikes inspired by Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who kicked things off in August last year by skipping school every Friday to stage a one-girl protest outside Sweden's Parliament, this one isn't just for students. 

It's for everyone, of all ages, all over the world. And if earlier climate strikes are anything to go by, it's going to be huge. I'm going to the Global Climate Strike in Lismore, my nearest city (there'll be strikes Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane; find other cities worldwide here). I thought I'd share Bob's talk here, to get us all in the climate-action mood. 

Here's a lightly edited transcript of what Bob Brown said at TravelDAZE on 28 August with some of his own pictures of natural places he loves. (Who knew one of Australia's best-known conservationists was also an accomplished photographer?)


Bob Brown - pic by New Matilda
"I’m Bob. I was first hit by conscious awareness at Trunkey Creek on the old Coachy Road between Bathurst and Goulburn. My dad was the local policeman, my mum had come off a dairy farm and she said, 'Whatever you do, look after nature' and it’s been with me ever since.

The word ‘sustainability’ of course comes from Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian Prime Minister, who was commissioned by the United Nations in the 1980s to look at the fact that humanity seemed to be overshooting its ability to live within the bounds of the planet. She talked about the need for us to have a sustainable relationship with this little earth of ours. Since then, we’ve had 2 billion more mouths to feed.

Some time after Gro Harlem Brundtland’s time, we reached 100 per cent use of the living resources of the planet. We’re now at 170 per cent. That's why every morning we wake to fewer forests, fewer fisheries, less arable land, more mouths to feed, to a million species facing extinction and the extinction rate now over 10,000 times the background extinction rate from natural attrition – due to the fact that the planet cannot deal with nearly 8 billion of us.

There were just two and a half billion of us when I was at Trunkey Creek and we're headed for 12 billion this century, with everybody wanting to consume more on a finite planet that simply doesn’t have more to give.

Bob & Stop Adani activists
So we’re in the greatest crisis of human time. It’s not coming. We’re in it. And yet today we have Australia’s minister for resources saying that coal is a great product and the more we can sell of it the better. 

While up at the Adani mine site in central Queensland, which has now been given the go-ahead by the environment ministers in Canberra and in Queensland, the Wangan and Jagalingou people, headed by elder Adrian Burragubba, are calling for people to go and camp with them on that site - I'll be going up there - to protect their sacred lands, which have songlines going right down the Darling River and through to the ocean, which the Adani mining operation will destroy if it goes ahead. 

And if the rest of the Galilee Basin is opened up, this will more than double the Australian greenhouse gas output into our atmosphere, when Australia is already the worst polluter per capita on the planet as we’re also the richest people per capita ever to have existed on this planet. 

I’m just stating the reality of the crisis that we are in because it is time for action.

But I want to come to the matter before us, which is tourism.

Tarkine forest, Tasmania
Pic by Bob Brown
Last year, a friend of mine took a busload of 17- and 18-year-olds from Shanghai out to the great forests of Tasmania and had trouble getting them out of the bus because they had never been in a natural environment in their lives and they were frightened of what might happen to them. 

We’re now in a world where there may be 50 cities of between 20 and 50 million people, most of them not able to get an experience in a true natural environment in the next couple of decades. What to do about this?

The spread of human beings across the planet is of course disastrous for natural environments, and if there’s one thing I do today it’s make a plea for our national parks. 

After decades of people putting themselves in front of bulldozers – Margaret Thorsborne, who was 91 when she died last year, there’s a famous picture of her, this woman with her handbag over her arm standing against the bulldozers at Hinchinbrook Island where a developer was coming in to clear the mangroves 20 or 30 years ago – today we’re not only needing to protect what is left of nature, and there’s quite a lot, but we need to consolidate the protection of the areas that are protected because they’re being invaded. 

Nature-based tourism is such a fabulous part of the human endeavour because it does bring us back to what's important. There are the great cultural icons of the world of course, the human-based manifestations of creativity, although Gaudi, the great Barcelonian architect who designed the Familia Sagrada, that great cathedral which after 120 or 130 years is nearing completion now, said that all human creativity comes from the great book of nature. It’s nature, of which we are part, on this finite planet, that we have to protect.

Bob Brown's tourism action plan
I've put together a list of things we might do (see pic, right). I’ll pick a couple out.

One is: Pay proper respect to the indigenous people left in their indigenous lands and that includes the Wangan and Jagalingou people who are calling on people around the world to sit with them, to protect their sacred lands [against the Adani coal mine] because it is part of the sacred planet for which we have no substitute.

Another is: Reward ourselves with starlit nights in the wild. It is extraordinarily important if we’re going to look after this planet, that we re-engage with it. I know as a campaigning conservationist, since I left my medical practice to get into the job of 'preventative medicine', that is protecting our environment, which is so important to the human soul and therefore human wellbeing, that it is imperative to spend time out under the stars at night – by the way Scorpio is right overhead at the moment, it’s magnificent. 

Bob & a bluegum, Tasmania
Pic by Paul Thomas
And of course that means days immersed in nature too, walking to where we camp, living close to nature, as our 100 BILLION forebears have done until this little blip in history where we’re technologically not only transforming the planet but transforming our own appreciation, or lack of appreciation, for the fact that we cannot do without this earth, which gives us everything. 

But it can do without us. As it’s done without the dinosaurs. The only difference is that the dinosaurs didn’t see that asteroid coming, 65 million years ago. We know what we’re doing and we can turn it around. We have the technological wherewithal. We have the ethical background, if we only take it on. We have the ability for restraint. We’ve shown in two World Wars that within three months of an emergency we can use 15 per cent of our gross domestic product to protect ourselves and yet 2 per cent of world domestic product put to it now would stop the climate emergency in its tracks. 

[At this point in his talk, Bob took us on a little trip by showing some of his own photographs of some of his favourite natural places, most in Tasmania, all threatened by tourism developments from resorts to roads. For brevity, I've omitted this section but included some of his pics.]

Bushfire haze near Huon River
Every second of every day, whether we’re in Sydney or Hobart or Timbuktu, is one degree Centigrade hotter than when I was a boy, due to burning coal, oil, gas and forests. And the prescription for our society at the moment doesn't seem to be 'let’s move to the technologically available alternatives of renewable energy' or 'instead of destroying trees, let's plant more' but to put the foot on the accelerator. 

There’s an enormous disjunct in thinking here and the tourism industry has a great potential role to play in getting us out of this wrong mindset into the constructive and sustainable mindset of the future. 

Another point on my credo for nature-tourism: Insisting that the people who destroy and injure nature are properly arraigned. That means, charged and penalised. We, for example, should not be a planet in which more whales are being harpooned. We should not be a planet in which more great forests are being felled. 

Not a black-throated finch,
but a fantailed cuckoo
We should not be a planet in which coal mines, as well as having the impact on climate change, are directly threatening species. 

This little bird on my lapel pin is the black-throated finch. At the Adani mine site there are 400 left, it’s the most important population as it heads towards extinction. They’re about to clear the woodland on which this bird depends, to open it up for coal extraction, to burn for profit – that’s all there is to it. It’s completely unnecessary. 

In India, as in Australia, renewable energy is now cheaper than coal-fired energy. But if you’re friends with the prime minister and when you build your power station to burn your Queensland coal next to the Bangladeshi border to sell across the border and your prime minister clears hundreds of people off that land and gives you tax breaks for putting the power station there, well, you’re sitting pretty. And when you are opening a coal mine in Queensland in which you intend to put $3 million into family or company trusts in the Cayman Islands, then you’re onto a good thing. But I don’t think the minister is going to take that on.

Bob & Paul's old house in Tasmania's
Liffey Valley, which they donated to
Bush Heritage Australia
What I do think we can take on, as people who respect and want to present nature to our fellow human beings, is to create a travel industry that is going to be ethical and able to survive into the future with pride in its chest and to back those environmentalists on the front line trying to protect national parks and threatened natural areas, knowing that it’s taking part in the protection of the planet upon which we all depend. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it's a beautiful planet, we’re a beautiful species, we need to bring out the best in ourselves and each other and turn around this ship of state so that our children, our grandchildren and everybody who is on this planet after us will thank us for having been here. Thank you all."

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Bob Brown, low-carbon travel & more from TravelDAZE 2019

Last week I did something that wasn't very no-impact: I flew to Sydney for the day. After weighing up the pros and (carbon) cons, I decided it was worth it. And it totally was, because it was one incredible, inspiring day.

Called TravelDAZE, this annual TEDx-style event is run by Travel Weekly and this year the theme was Sustainable Travel. So of course I had to go.

Oh, and one of the 21 speakers was Bob Brown. (If you're not Australian or don't know about this environmentalist and former senator and Greens leader, introduce yourself at I'll wait here.)

Walking the talk
It was great to see TravelDAZE walking the sustainability talk. For instance: it was held at the NSW Teachers Federation conference centre near Sydney's Central Station so there was easy access by public transport. Pre-event emails asked everyone to bring their own reusable water bottles (there was filtered water on tap) and coffee cups.

Frank Green's sustainable cups
There were also free Frank Green coffee cups, which are beautifully designed, recyclable, leak-proof (great for travelling) and made in Australia. (Too bad they're plastic, but I'd brought my own cup anyway; Frank Green also makes ceramic-steel cups).

The only printed materials were our name tags. Registration was done electronically. There were no promotional gifts (refreshingly unusual at travel events). And lunch, prepared by local caterer Relish Foods, was amazing: healthy, vegetarian (with two options for meat-eaters) and served in compostable bowls with corn-starch cutlery.

Why isn't every conference as creatively sustainable as this?

The stage was set for an epic day of short talks averaging 10-15 minutes each with a couple of longer keynotes. Here are a few snippets that inspired or resonated with me.

Good things are happening
The main takeaway from the day was that travel companies are increasingly committed to doing good - reducing their environmental impact, protecting human rights, reducing animal cruelty, promoting gender equality, giving back - in a multitude of ways.

A few standout examples, that go way beyond banning plastic straws and asking guests to reuse hotel towels, from a day that was positively bursting with them:
  • Intrepid Travel has been carbon neutral since 2010 and is planning to go "carbon positive" next year; that is, not just offsetting their carbon emissions but actually removing carbon from the atmosphere by working with The Climate Foundation and the University of Tasmania to develop Australia's first seaweed platform off Tasmania's east coast. 
  • IHG (InterContinental Hotels Group) announced in July it's removing tiny toiletries from more than 840,000 rooms in 5600 hotels worldwide, replacing them with refillable bulk dispensers by 2021 to reduce plastic waste.
  • Virgin Holidays, United Airlines and British Airways have stopped selling tickets to captive dolphin "attractions" (unlike Qantas, which backflipped on its commitment this week), just one of the ways World Animal Protection, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is actively working with travel companies to end animal cruelty in tourism and promote animal-friendly tourism
  • World Resorts of Distinction created a Conscious Travel Checklist in July - which includes "offsets guests' carbon footprints" and "no single-use plastic" - and encourages guests to use it when planning their holidays. You can download it here
  • Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy, set up in 1982, now supports 42 conservation, education, health care and social enterprise projects - in 22 countries, including a bike mechanic program that employs and empowers women in Tanzania (love this).
  • New Zealand is on a mission to lead the world in sustainable tourism AND become the first carbon-neutral country in the world and in November launched the Tiaki Promise, a Maori-based pledge to help travellers "care for people and place" when visiting NZ. 

Low-carbon travel
Darrell Wade, co-founder of Intrepid Travel, kept it real when he was asked about the future of sustainable travel. It's bright, he said - and bleak. In terms of travellers wanting to minimise their impact and travel companies stepping up to be more sustainable (see above), he's hopeful.

Darrell Wade, keeping it real
"The tourism industry, as much as we've got a big question mark over our heads for carbon emissions, in terms of the benefit to the world in the money we spend and the cultural bridge we make and the peace dividends, what our industry delivers is huge," he said, before talking up the value of "undertourism" (visiting countries that don't get many visitors).

About those carbon emissions... When it comes to aviation, the future is "pretty bleak". Although flying gets about one per cent more efficient every year per passenger-mile, aviation is growing at about 4.5 per cent a year "so the impact of aviation is getting worse every year... and biofuels may never be economically viable." It's travel's inconvenient truth, Wade said.

What can be done? Travel companies need to address the carbon emissions of flying when designing tourism products. "In our case, Intrepid has a legal presence in about 40 countries and traditionally we've always thought of each country as either an outbound market [such as Australia, the US or England] or an inbound market like Vietnam or Peru or Kenya. As time goes on, I think we'll have to flip that on its head," he said, by offering lower-carbon products in domestic markets. "We'll increasingly have to have a lower carbon structure built into tourism product at a global level."

Clean Travel founder Macartan
Gaughan with the UN goals
Small is beautiful
There was much talk about big goals, specifically the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include "Climate action" and "No poverty" by 2030. We also learned about small, grass-roots projects and partnerships making a difference.

The Myanmar Stove Project, supported by the Soneva Foundation, plans to distribute 200,000 fuel-efficient cooking stoves to reduce deforestation, carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. Courier Luggage, a family-owned business in South Australia, recently launched a new range of wheeled suitcases made entirely from recycled plastic drink bottles for National Geographic.

A PNG child receiving
a new Solar Buddy
Solar Buddy, which has partnered with Flight Centre, provides portable solar-powered lights to beat "energy poverty" in developing countries.

Then there's Planeterra, a not-for-profit launched in 2015 by G Adventures to help communities around the world benefit from tourism. After reaching its target of "50 [projects] in 5 [years]" 18 months early, it now has a new target, Project 100: to support 100 local enterprises by 2020. Now that's big.

Bob rules, ok?
My personal highlight of the day was seeing Bob Brown, who gave the keynote address. He might have retired from politics in 2012 but he's still as passionate as ever, his words a stirring call to action about the urgency of protecting the planet and Australia's wild natural places.

The inspirational Bob Brown
He credits his mum with instilling in him a respect for nature: "I was first hit by conscious awareness at Trunkey Creek, between Bathurst and Goulburn [in central NSW]. My dad was the local policeman, my mum had come off a dairy farm and she said, 'Whatever you do, look after nature' and it's been with me ever since."

He talked about his credo for nature-based tourism, the disastrous Adani coal mine in central Queensland, the climate emergency - "We're in the greatest crisis of human time. It's not coming. We're in it." And his ethos: "Don't get depressed, get active."

Rules to travel by
To illustrate the importance of protecting national parks and World Heritage Areas, he showed us pics of some of his favourite places - Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island (South Australia) and Federation Peak, Frenchman's Cap and the South Coast Track in Tasmania - all at risk from private tourism developments, which should be built on private land, he said.

"National parks should be for the public, the infrastructure should be publicly paid for and amenable to everyone equally," he said.

His last words: "It's a beautiful planet, we're a beautiful species, [but] we need to turn around this ship of state so that our children, our grandchildren and everybody who is on this planet after us will thank us for being here."

A calmer Costa
Costa is a force of nature
Gardening Australia host and TV personality Costa Georgiadis livened up the post-lunch time-slot with his show-and-tell (instead of a "what do you call it, Powerpoint!" presentation).

Wearing a black T-shirt that read, when his beard wasn't in the way, "Giving is better than taking, Producing is better than consuming, Collaborating is better than competing", he wandered all over the auditorium and tossed us rolls of Who Gives A Crap recycled toilet paper (which helps build toilets for communities in developing countries).

He also showed off his reusables (apparently he hasn't used anything disposable for 28 years): a stainless steel water bottle, a reusable coffee cup, wooden cutlery, even a Boomerang Bag! "Free the leaf!" he said, holding up a glass jar of tea leaves he uses instead of tea bags. "Say no to convenience!" See Travel Weekly's story for more on what Costa said.

Not just lions
The Lion's Share
The day ended on an upbeat note: filmmaker Christopher Nelius talked about The Lion's Share, a Sydney-based initiative launched in September last year to "change the world through advertising."

For 150 years we've been using animals to help sell products, Nelius said, to convey messages of cuteness, security, innocence, belonging. "But there's a disconnect. We can put a tiger on a cereal box, but real tigers in the wild are in trouble." And not just tigers but rhinos, koalas, orangutans, snow leopards...

Pic by The Lion's Share Fund
The Lion's Share helps advertisers "give back" by voluntarily donating 0.5 per cent of what they spend on advertising every time they use animals (even cartoon animals!) in their ads. Last year, $US591 billion was spent on media globally; 20 per cent of those ads used animals. Backed by the UN Development Program and Mars Inc, The Lion's Share funds wildlife conservation, habitat restoration and animal welfare projects. They're aiming to raise $US100 million a year within three years.

Sir David Attenborough is even behind it, as a Special Ambassador, and has called it "a profoundly game-changing initiative".

What better way to end a thought-tornado of a day of inspiration and positive action?


Big thanks to Daisy Melwani at Travel Weekly - and event sponsor G Adventures - for the media ticket to TravelDAZE this year and to all the speakers for sharing their hard-won experience. So inspiring, invigorating and empowering. I learned a lot. Now to plant more trees to carbon-offset those flights...

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Six sustainable reasons to visit Italy

This time last week I was just back from Italy, which was surprisingly inspiring from a sustainability perspective - and not just because I was travelling with a bunch of vegans.

Vegan gelato, mmm
We were on a brand new Italy Vegan Food Adventure run by Intrepid Travel, which is timely given that 2019 has been called The Year of the Vegan (by The Economist). But a vegan tour in the country that gave the world mozzarella, prosciutto and ossobuco? It was a great story before I even got there.

I'm semi-vegan myself, if there is such a thing. I've been vegetarian for about 20 years (I still eat honey, eggs and cheese) and used to call myself "vegaquarian" when I was eating fish and other seafood more than I do now, which is hardly ever.

A great book, seen in Florence
But the more I read and learn about the impact of animal agriculture on the planet and on our own health, the more veganism makes sense.

Unlike me, all but one of my seven travelling companions were committed vegans, but we had a lot in common - because veganism is about so much more than just what we eat.

All week, we had great conversations - on trains, at the dinner table, while walking city streets - about things close to my heart, like minimalism and tiny houses and animal welfare and plastic pollution and the importance of being in nature. It was a breath of fresh air.

It also meant I wasn't the only one noticing sustainable things as we travelled by train from Venice to Rome via Bologna and Florence.

Here are six I particularly loved:

A "Venexian" espresso
with cocoa and soy milk
1. No takeaway coffee cups. Italians famously drink their espresso coffees standing up, from little glasses or ceramic cups. Or they sit in cafes people-watching or reading the morning Il Gazzettino. The only people I saw carrying takeaway coffee cups were a few tourists yet to get with the program. I travelled with my own reusable coffee cup - and didn't use it once.

2. Free water. In every city we visited we found public drinking fountains where we could refill our reusable water bottles. The water was not just clean but cool, so refreshing on a steamy northern summer's day.

Water fountain in Venice
Unfortunately Italy is one of the world's biggest consumers of bottled water (after Mexico and Thailand). Ask for water in a restaurant or cafe and you'll get bottled water, in glass or plastic, unless you ask specifically for "acqua di rubinetto" (tap water) - or just bring your own.

3. Being "vegano" is easy. It's surprisingly easy to be vegetarian or vegan in Italy. Many much-loved Italian foods are naturally vegan; think olive oil, pesto, bruschetta, pizza and pasta (when made without eggs).

Because most dishes are made fresh, you can often ask for non-vegan ingredients to be removed; for "no cheese" just say "niente formaggio".

Pizza heaven, without cheese
(at Il Rovescio, Bologna)
And almost every gelato shop has some vegan sorbet-like gelati. In Venice we even found a creamy sour cherry flavour made with rice milk. So good...

We ate at some incredible vegan restaurants. My three favourites, which were all organic too ("bio" in Europe-speak) were: Fiume Freddo (it means Cold River) in Venice; Il Rovescio in Bologna, where the wholemeal pizza with soy cheese made me never want to eat pizza outside Italy again; and Il Margutta in Rome, a fine-dining vegetarian restaurant that's been going since 1979.

4. "Zero kilometres" is big. All over northern Italy, where the Zero Kilometres movement started in the 1980s (along with the Slow Food trend), we saw "0km" or "Km0" on restaurant signs, indicating that they use only ingredients that are local, seasonal, organic and sustainable.

A "zero kms" bruschetta at
Garden & Villas, Ischia
In southern Italy, I stayed at Garden & Villas Resort on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, for a couple of days after the vegan trip.

The food there is amazing, thanks to the resort's Sicilian chef Guancarlo Lo Giudice and the fact that almost everything you eat is grown in the property's organic garden. The rest is sourced from elsewhere on Ischia, including olive oil and wine; there are 20 wine producers on an island that's barely 10km wide. That's Italy for you, land of the fresh and delicious.

Buongiorno, Venice
5. Venice is car-free. Sounds obvious, and it is. But how many cities do you know where you can get around only on foot - or by gondola, water taxi or vaporetto (public water bus)? Not only is it low-impact, it makes Venice surprisingly peaceful, even when you're there in summer as we were.

We stayed in Canareggio, Venice's Jewish quarter (who knew? It's only been there for 503 years), which has plenty of hip bars and cafes. One morning I got up early and walked to the sea-shore to watch the sun rise.

Everything was still. The crooked colourful buildings looked as if they'd been hand-drawn, the canals were as smooth as mirrors and there was no one around but the seagulls and the street-sweepers (they do a good job; I barely saw any rubbish around, despite Venice being one of Europe's most visited cities).

In tourist mode at
Rome's Trevi Fountain
6. Plastic-free moves. Despite drinking a lot of bottled water, some of it in glass at least, Italy was the first country in the world to ban plastic bags, in 2011, and the plastic-free revolution is gaining momentum.

The island of Capri, near Ischia, banned all single-use plastics in January this year. Rome is working towards banning all single-use plastics. And the EU Parliament just voted unanimously to ban 10 single-use plastics such as straws across Europe by 2021 and to recycle 90 per cent of all drink bottles by 2029.

Climbing roses in Tuscany
A footnote: One of the best things about my two weeks in Italy was that it reminded me to slow down, smell the wild roses and enjoy the simple goodness of great seasonal food with friends and maybe a glass of organic vegan wine.

Big thanks to Intrepid Travel, particularly our "vegano" guide Francesco Sibilio and Kate Parker at head office for getting me back to Italy, my first visit in 30 years. The more I travel, the bigger the world gets, but I'm appreciating the value of backtracking too, as bookmarks in our lives, showing how we've changed as well as the places we thought we knew. Grazie mille, Italia.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Fred's Tiny House review: cosy DIY inspiration in Victoria

Before I launch into my review of tiny house #3 in this four-part series, here's a link to my tiny house cover story published in last week's Traveller. It's about how the global tiny house movement is colonising travel, one "tiny house stay" at a time, and includes mini-reviews of the four tiny houses I'm reviewing more fully here.

Fred & Shannon's tiny house
The third tiny I stayed in during my road trip down the Australian east coast with Mr No Impact Girl earlier this year was Fred's Tiny House in Castlemaine, Victoria, just 90 minutes north of Melbourne.

I'd been looking forward to this one ever since I did a weekend tiny house-building workshop with Fred late last year (reviewed here: How to build a tiny house).

Fred's an inspirational teacher, so it was no surprise that his tiny house is inspirational too. It's so much more than just an overnight stay; it's a vehicle for learning how to live more simply and sustainably.

Who's Fred?
Mr Tiny House in action
Originally from Kansas, Fred Schultz studied and worked as an industrial chemist, a Presbyterian minister and a gestalt therapist before he built his first tiny house in 2010. He was living in Australia by then, having visited his sister in Echuca, Victoria, in 2001 and never left.

What led him into the world of tiny houses on wheels? Suffering from burnout at the age of 50, he decided to liberate himself from rental and mortgage servitude by radically reducing his living expenses - by building and living in a tiny house.

(He now prefers the term tiny house vehicles, THVs, instead of tiny houses on wheels to communicate that they need to be built much stronger than conventional houses to withstand cyclone-like forces in transit.)

Home-made home
Fred's Tiny House is a bit different to the other tinys built as holiday rentals (such as Edmond and Tallarook, both in NSW). For one thing, he built it himself, as his one and only home. And he's not a builder. That was the point.

Because it's a hand-made home, it takes you back to the DIY roots of the tiny house movement, something Fred is passionate about.

Fred's motto says it all
“Maybe we're the purists or the true believers," says Fred, "but the tiny house movement is about reclaiming shelter-making, putting the hammer back in the hands of people to reclaim this part of their lives. 

"One of the things Henry David Thoreau said was, ‘What is the cost of a thing? Well, it’s how much time you have to give of your life to get it.’ Forget dollars. It’s about time. And when you start to count the time it takes to have the accommodation that everyone else has, well, he questioned that. Then he built his own house.

"It's also about taking this little crack in the regulations, at the moment, that enables us to build our own houses. And I want to help others liberate themselves, to get unplugged."

DIY inspiration
Fred & yours truly at a workshop
Fred's calling now is to liberate others, empowering people to build their own tiny houses, and he's doing that in several ways.

Through Fred's Tiny Houses, he runs tiny house-building workshops all over Australia, covering everything from construction tips to where you can legally put your tiny house.

He and his team build tiny house trailers and shells, and they have patented their own Unified Construction Method, a secure way of building tiny houses on wheels, which DIY builders can use for free (and commercial builders can pay a small fee to use). He's developing 3D drawing templates anyone can use to design tiny homes to meet Australian standards for caravans.

He also advocates for changes to local laws, to make tiny house living a legal option for everyone. Earlier this year, Fred launched a free, crowd-sourced nationwide database of council regulations in Australia that determine where you can put or build tiny houses.

In short, Fred's contribution to the tiny house movement runs deep. Naturally, he's won several sustainability awards, most recently the 2019 Flourish Prize for business as an agent of world benefit in the Sustainable Cities and Communities category. Congratulations, Fred!

So, what's his tiny house like to stay in?

Tiny family in a tiny house
Good, different
Because it was built for living - Fred, his lovely wife Shannon and their one-year-old (now four-year-old) daughter Olina, lived in it for a year before baby #2, Theo, came along - Fred's tiny is full of clever ideas. It also reminds you that tiny houses aren't just cute; they're a real housing solution.

It's relatively small, at only 5.4 metres, but doesn't feel cramped because of all the storage (something you wouldn't find in a tiny weekender).

"It's more like a boat than a caravan," says Fred, referring to features inspired by boat design such as the self-drying dish rack, nifty storage nooks and cupboard doors with concealed handles (no knobs to bump into).

Because Fred used acoustic insulation (acrylic sound batts) against the chilly central Victorian winters, it's super-quiet and feels more solid than some of the other tinys I've been in.

Shady summer deck
We're there in late summer and the corrugated exterior makes me wonder if it'll be too hot to sleep in the loft bed that night. It isn't. Fred put a radiant barrier inside the roof to deal with extreme Aussie summers; it reflects 97 per cent of the sun's rays, he says, so "it feels as if you're parked under a tree even though we're in full sun."

It also has two decks, their roofs angled to catch the winter sun and shade the tiny in summer.

Warm inside (the
rocket stove bottom left)
And it's not just off-grid, it's fossil fuel-free. In addition to the solar panels and inverter and the rainwater tank beside it, there's a rocket stove ("a fast-combustion stove" Shannon calls it, fuelled by sticks not logs) to heat rainwater for the shower, a two-burner stove and oven that run on (renewable) methylated spirits and a super-efficient eutectic fridge.

I've mentioned in other posts how the high ceilings, big windows and loft beds make tiny houses feel completely different to caravans. Here's Fred's take on the difference: 

“Tiny houses are designed to shed water the way a normal house would. With a caravan, it’s made to be lightweight, so it’s aluminium, foam, plastic, wood and it relies on silicon caulk to keep the water out and that’s not a long-term solution. The sun will eventually make it brittle and the water will get sneaky and win and it’ll grow mould and it’ll smell. And as soon as that happens, it’s game over.” 

The experience
We find Fred's Tiny House at the bottom of the garden, past the clothes line and rows of grape vines and facing a railway line. It might not be as wild as the locations of other tinys we've stayed in, but it's far enough from the main house to give you plenty of privacy and its backyard location is part of its charm - because it shows how a real tiny house looks in situ, one that you could actually live in.

Chatting to the chippy
There's a 7.2-metre tiny house under construction in the driveway when we're there and we have a brief chat with the carpenters, which makes the whole DIY experience real.

I also love that this tiny is just five minutes from downtown Castlemaine, a creative little town that's brimming with inspiration itself (see below).

Inside, Fred's Tiny House feels warm and homely, thanks to the camphor benchtops (which have anti-bacterial properties) and the pine wall panels and floors.

Breakfast seating
That night we make dinner, read a little - the reading matter provided includes a well-thumbed copy of Voluntary Simplicity: The poetic alternative to consumer culture edited by Samuel Alexander - then stand outside for a while looking up at the moon and the stars. That's the beauty of regional Australia; you can be close to everything and feel far, far away at the same time.

Some things are a bit fiddly, such as pulling out the ladder from its slot beside the kitchen bench to access the loft and crouching in the deep Japanese bath to shower (there's not enough water pressure for a proper shower).

But I kinda liked all that. It makes you use the space more carefully, more mindfully. And it's oddly inspiring: remembering that this is a space designed by, and for, Fred and Shannon, sparks ideas of what features I'd like in my own tiny house...

The verdict
The real deal
Despite having stayed in other tinys, our night at Fred's Tiny House was a bit of a revelation, its power stemming from its DIY authenticity, the fact that it was hand-made, with love and care.

Just being there - particularly if you get to chat with Fred or Shannon - makes you feel part of a global community of tiny house builders and stirs secret dreams of building your own tiny, or at least finding new ways to live a simpler, more earth-friendly life.

I'll give Fred the last word: "How many times do you hear someone say, 'You know the happiest we were was when we lived in that little place and had nothing'? Even just going camping, when they're outside and reduced to living with just the essentials, people will say, 'Hey, this is great, let's do this again next year'. Well, why not make that your life?"


How to do it: Fred's Tiny House in Castlemaine, 90 minutes from Melbourne, sleeps three and starts at $79 a night including a simple breakfast pack of croissants and jams. See Fred's Airbnb listing.

Resources: Fred runs weekend tiny house-building workshops all over Australia that cover everything from what kind of trailer you need to where to put a tiny house. Here's the link again to my review of the workshop I did last year. More info at

The Mill, Castlemaine
While you're there: Castlemaine is a creative little town full of artists, yoga teachers, baristas, writers, musicians, sustainability gurus - and tiny house builders. PETA once called it the most vegan-friendly place in Australia. Head to The Mill for coffee and an "apfelstrudel" under the chandeliers in Das Kaffeehaus Austrian cafe; the restored woollen mill also has artists' studios, artisanal food outlets such as the Tap Room craft brewery. I loved the vast vintage emporium and Platform No. 5, both full of upcycled, handmade and second-hand curiosities, clothes and furniture.

Gratitude: Thanks so much to Fred, Shannon and Ben (their marketing guru) at Fred's Tiny Houses for arranging this overnight stay and for the inspirational conversations. 

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Man on a mission: Grant Emans, tiny house builder

Grant Emans is a man on a mission. His dream: to see more Australians living in tiny houses so that we can reduce our use of energy and resources and be stewards of the planet that is our true and only home.

Mr Tiny House, Grant Emans
A commercial builder for more than 15 years, Grant set up Designer Eco Tiny Homes in 2017 and his team have now, as of this week, made 100 tiny homes - in their workshop in Ulladulla, three hours south of Sydney. He also donates a tiny house to charity every year, most recently to the Salvation Army.

It's a sign of just how fast this movement is growing that Grant built his first tiny house only four years ago, in his backyard,  "just to see what was involved". A few months later, in early 2016, he flew to the US for a Tiny House Conference in North Carolina to see if the concept would work in Australia. "As soon as I saw them, I thought, 'Yep'."

On the plane back to Australia, he drew up his first tiny house design. He built that second tiny soon after and towed it up the coast to the Sydney Home Show in November 2016. It was a hit.

A 4.8m Adventure tiny
"We had about 6000 people through it," he says. "At that time, the market was a bit down and I remember a lot of the exhibitors were complaining that there wasn’t the usual flow of traffic – but we had a line, people had to form a line [to see our tiny house]."

[A nutshell definition for those new to this tiny world: tiny houses are small, house-like dwellings up to 7.2 metres long and 4.3 metres high, on wheels - which allows them to sidestep council regulations and be classified as caravans.]

Grant wasn't the first to make tiny houses in Australia, not quite. "Fred [Schultz, of Fred's Tiny Houses] was the first, I reckon he's the pioneer. He promotes the DIY. We help the people who don't want to or can't DIY." The Tiny House Company in Queensland started making tiny houses commercially a couple of months before Grant, but he's arguably the largest tiny house builder in Australia now and employs 15 people including two apprentices.

"I personally think there’s a big enough market for a number of tiny house builders across the country because ultimately you’re going to start seeing more and more people choosing to go down this path and you’re going to start seeing governments allowing them, and developers creating spaces within subdivisions for transitional housing such as tiny homes. It could take 20 years, but it'll happen."

Tiny houses under construction
Earlier this year I met Grant at the Designer Eco Tiny Homes workshop on the NSW south coast - a hangar-like space full of tiny houses under construction - and interviewed him about all things tiny. It was such a great glimpse into the world of professionally built tiny houses, I thought I'd share it here.

Here's an edited version of our chat, 14 tiny questions for Grant Emans:

Why did you switch from building regular-sized houses?
I did home building for 15 years. I built that many houses for people who were nice people but almost everyone over-capitalised. For a lot of them it was their second home, it was excess, which is ok but I thought, jeez I'd love to build something for someone who really needed a house.

What do you love about tiny houses?
To me a tiny house is the appropriate use of natural resources in order to house an individual. As soon as I saw my first one, I thought that’s the most sustainable piece of housing I’ve ever seen. It’s not just the materials. It’s also the cost: a house isn’t just physical shelter, it’s important to our mental wellbeing; you can live well in one of these spaces because it doesn’t cost so much that you’re shackled with a mortgage forever, entrenched in a job forever.

A roomy 7.2m tiny
People need to remember: a house isn't just four walls and a roof, it’s not just a place to live. It’s a huge sense of security, self-confidence, a lot of emotions come with a house. Just ask someone who doesn't have one; they’ll tell you how important it is.

It’s also one of the most versatile, transportable pieces of housing infrastructure you can create which is important because things move so fast these days, and jobs change. My father’s generation, they had the same jobs all their lives. My brother in law, he’s in his mid 30s and he changes jobs every 18 months. There’s so many benefits to tiny houses, it’s incredible.

How much does a professionally built tiny cost? 
The average is about $75,000, but it depends on the length and the extras. The 4.8-metre ones are more like $60-70,000. But to live in one full-time, you’re better off with a 7.2m for about $90,000, which is still much less than the average cost of a house in Sydney.

How long do they take to build?
Once you've signed off on your design, it's about six weeks to gather materials and another five weeks to build. So you’re looking at a 12-week minimum if we happen to have no other jobs on at the time. We're building four a month at the moment, and our build schedule is booked out about four months ahead. 

Stairs + storage in a 6m tiny
Who's buying tiny houses now? 
Everybody, that’s the beauty of them. But the number one customers by far are single women over 55. A lot of them are divorced. We built one for a doctor who needed a temporary home whenever she did locums in regional towns.

Where are they putting them? 
Some work out deals [with landowners] to do maintenance or gardening in exchange for parking a tiny house. A lot of people put tiny houses on their own properties to rent out, which wasn’t what I anticipated when I started the business - I started it to create an affordable housing solution - but the reality is the opportunity for Airbnb and that type of thing is tremendous.

We had a call from someone this morning who wants us to move his tiny house to Narrabeen [caravan park on Sydney's northern beaches] for six months, then he’s going to head up to Byron for six months; I thought, what a great way to live in the city, affordably.

A 4.8m "caravan"
Are they legal?
Wherever you can put a caravan in Australia, you can put a tiny house. Legally speaking they're caravans, even though the purpose of a tiny house is to create an alternative housing solution. We basically design and build caravans that look like houses.

But is it true that in some council areas you can't stay in a caravan for more than 60 days a year? 
NSW is probably the leading state in terms of rules for living in a caravan: you can actually live in a caravan on a block of land as long as there's a house there already. Technically it's supposed to be for a member of the owner's household. Or if you're on agricultural or pastoral land, you can have as many caravans as you want, but it's a seasonal thing - for workers. There are ways around it.

How different are tiny houses from caravans?
Fantastic question! If you want to go rent a caravan in someone’s paddock, you’ll hate it. The low ceilings, the small Perspex windows... A caravan is designed to travel down the highway and specifically the market is grey nomads, most of them on a tight budget so fuel efficiency is super-important to them [meaning aerodynamics is all-important]. And caravans leak.

Our tiny houses are built the same as regular houses except for the fact they're on trailers, not piers. In fact I'd say ours are stronger because they are designed to be transported. So whereas a house is normally just nailed, ours are glued AND nailed because we're dealing with the vibration [in transit]. A tiny house will last as long as a house, probably longer.

Tiny houses are also insulated. Some have decks. All the windows on ours are double-glazed for insulation as well as sound-reduction.

Ladder to loft in a 4.8m tiny
And I don’t know of any two-storey caravans. Because of this wonderful feature of the loft, the internal ceiling height in a tiny house is about 3.3 metres (2.4 metres is standard in most regular houses). So that sense of space is incredible. 

Are tiny houses built more sustainably than regular houses?
That’s a good question. You can make a tiny house that has no VOCs, all recycled materials, totally sustainable – but it’s expensive. Then there’s the other side of it that says don’t worry about all that, just import materials, make it cheap and sell lots of units to those who don’t care.

We take the middle ground: we try and do everything as environmentally sustainable as possible, while keeping costs reasonable. To me it's all about efficiency – the more energy-efficient a place is, the less power you’re going to use and that’s the most eco-friendly aspect of tinys. 

Are most of your tiny houses off-grid?
One in five tinys we make is fully off-grid. Every tiny house we build comes with solar as standard and that powers all your lights. For 240-volt power, that’s a different kettle of fish [requires inverters and battery storage or backup generators].

Rainwater tank on the draw bar
Most people who are off-grid get a big rainwater tank that collects water from the roof, or from the roof plus a deck roof. We also do 550-litre water tanks on the draw bar.

And most of our tiny houses have composting toilets. When I started this business I thought surely people would want flushing toilets, but no. Water use is a big factor, we're in one of the driest countries in the world.

You can live in a tiny house with a small solar system, a small water tank and a composting toilet pretty comfortably. 

What do you think about the rise of luxury tinys - are they still sustainable?
I personally think tiny house living will be for the vast majority of Australians, they just don’t know it yet. And some will want luxury features like aircon, but the reality is it’s still the most appropriate use of resources - even if they go deluxe. They’re not building six-storey monstrosities. 

Would you live in a tiny house?
We will. Before I started the business I already had a house and I’m a firm believer in: there’s no need to change if things are working. But as soon as my kids graduate, when they're off at uni and doing their own thing, we'll sell up, move into a tiny and live in the local caravan park.

I’ve already got my name on the waiting list to buy a site, because the reality is that in 15 or 20 years time, the idea of living in a caravan park won’t be that foreign, it’ll be quite normal - and someone else with a family can use that big house. There are other benefits too because we’ll cash out, I’ll finish work and we'll go travelling and visit the kids.

The future is tiny!
What's ahead for tiny house living?
I think more and more and councils will pick up on it and some will become "tiny house friendly" and they'll attract investment, they’ll start charging fees. I think that's appropriate if people are using local infrastructure. But at the moment we’re in transition.

I just hope the government supports it. Actually I’m not even worried about that because people need to remember: governments do what people want, not the other way round. If this is what we want, it’ll happen.


"Edmond" tiny for In2theWild
Designer Eco Tiny Homes builds tiny houses to order ranging from 3.6m to 7.2m in length; they have more than a dozen models to choose from and can also do custom orders.

You can even stay in one of their tinys - with In2theWild (4.8-metre tinys in various locations close to Sydney) or Tallarook Tiny Home (a 6-metre tiny on the NSW south coast). Click here and here to read my reviews of these two amazing tiny house stays.