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 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. 

Friday 17 May 2019

Tiny house review: Tallarook on the NSW south coast

I once had a boyfriend who loved to declare, whenever we found ourselves in a small space - a hotel room, a shipping container, even an elevator - "I could live here". It was a declaration of his independence from traditional houses, decades before tiny houses became a thing, but his words have been coming back to me lately.

Tiny house in the mist
Pic: Tom Wilson Media
Most notably on a recent road trip during which I got to stay in four very different tiny houses - two in NSW and two in Victoria.

Following on from my review of Edmond, run by In2theWild, this post is about tiny #2 on that trip: beautiful Tallarook Tiny Home on the NSW south coast, about four hours south of Sydney.

Built by Designer Eco Tiny Homes, Tallarook, which opened last year, is no ordinary tiny house stay. First, there's its wilderness setting: surrounded by sky-high river red gums on 20 hectares (50 acres) of farmland right on the Clyde River, said to be the cleanest river in eastern Australia because its catchment lies within three national parks and 10 state forests.

Last one in makes dinner!
You won't be surprised to learn that the first thing we did on arriving, Mr No Impact Girl and I, was dump our bags, amble down the short path to the river - we could see it sparkling between the trees - and throw ourselves in. Is there anything more reviving after a long drive on a hot late-summer afternoon than a skinny dip in water that's good enough to drink?

The peace began to settle on us. There was no one else around. No sound but the wind whispering to the trees. After drip-drying in the sun we walked back to the house to check out our lodgings for the next two nights.

First impressions
From the outside Tallarook is more cabin than tiny house, with its timber cladding and high barn-shaped roof.

The woodsy deck
A wide covered deck cleverly doubles the living space - it's the perfect spot to relax in one of the cane chairs with a cup of tea or do a few stretches (BYO yoga mat), and when you bring two stools out from inside the wide railing turns into a breakfast bar.

At six metres long, Tallarook gives you a good idea of the amount of space you'd have if you were to actually live in tiny house (the longest tinys are 7.2 metres). Because although they make great weekenders, tinys are also undercover advocates for a more minimalist life.

"Most of the people who come here are either thinking of living in a tiny house or looking for an adventure," said Karen Bennett, who runs Tallarook with her husband Brian, when we arrived.

The single loft above
 the L-shaped daybed
Inside job
Inside, the decor is light, white and contemporary. It's beautifully put together with plenty of stylish, nature-based details - like the coastal-blue cushions and driftwood wall hangings that remind you the sea is only 30 minutes away. And, in the kitchen, timber benchtops, Japanese shibori-print placemats and earthy ceramic crockery.

The queen-sized loft bed is a highlight. At the top of a wide-stepped ladder it's as inviting and comfortable as any hotel bed - with storm-blue Morgan & Finch bed linen, three windows and two skylights (which also have insect screens and blinds) for star-gazing before sleep.

The hotel-like bed
The kitchen has everything you'd need: a two-burner gas stove, an electric oven and a full-sized fridge. Ditto for the compact bathroom; there's a composting toilet, a small handbasin and a great hot shower, and fluffy towels are provided.

Except for the gas stove, Tallarook runs on renewables - it's connected to the property's solar electricity and rainwater supply - and is also, thankfully, off-line (there's no Wi-Fi or mobile reception).

Kitchen, bathroom, ladder & loft
I tried to find at least a couple of negatives, for balance. All I could come up with was its aspect: facing west for river views makes it a bit hot on summer afternoons - but probably wonderfully warm in winter.

The experience 
That first evening, we had cheese and crackers on the deck in the last of the day's sunshine. Kangaroos grazed on the lawn behind us. Kookaburras laughed somewhere high and out of sight.

Deckchairs in the sun
We made a simple dinner and read a little. You can tell a lot about a tiny from its reading material; at Tallarook there was a basket full of slow-living magazines like Flow and Breathe as well as a Designer Eco Tiny Homes cattle dog (that's Aussie for "catalogue").

The next day, sunshine streamed in through the skylights, which we opened for forest views and some morning-fresh air.

Barefoot do-nothing time
Ahead lay a whole day to do nothing in particular - how often do you get to say that? There was a cooked breakfast, more river swims, naps on the daybed, more reading.

A breakfast hamper full of fresh local ingredients is included, by the way, and it's amazing: ours had farm-fresh eggs, crusty sourdough bread, jam from Clyde River Berry Farm next door, bacon, muesli, yoghurt, milk and fresh orange juice. There was coffee, tea, hot chocolate - and marshmallows - in the cupboard.

Kayaks on the Clyde
Pic: Tom Wilson Media
Sure, you could use Tallarook as a base for exploring the south coast (see "While you're there" below) but that'd be wasting its secluded location. It's a place to stop moving, be still and relax.

It's like camping, but not really, though we did use the fire-pit one night, played some guitar and toasted those marshmallows.

On our last day, kookaburras woke us early so we decided to take out the double-canoe. It was more of a drift than a paddle, through the morning mist. A platypus gave itself away when it dived, breaking the silky stillness. If we'd kept paddling downstream we would have popped out at Batemans Bay.

Tallarook: a place of peace
The verdict
Tallarook Tiny Home is a place to retreat to, to stop the wheels of the world spinning. It's a vehicle for reconnecting with nature. You're right there, day and night, listening to the birds, feeling the breeze and the warmth of the sun, looking up at the moon, swimming in the Clyde...

Before we left, I had to have one last swim. And as I climbed out of the water onto the small landing, still dripping, I looked up at Tallarook and thought, yeah, I could live here.


A few words from Mr No Impact Girl: "Wow! I love this place. Stunning setting, brilliant deck, spacious and beautifully ambient. I'd like to live here, and I'm not even the other boyfriend."

How to do it: Tallarook Tiny Home is on the NSW south coast, about 4.5 hours south of Sydney and just inland from Bawley Point. The nightly rate is $250 (minimum two nights) including breakfast. See

While you're there: Pick your own berries at Clyde River Berry Farm next door, in December and January. Or hike up nearby Pigeon House Mountain (Didthul). Karen is a certified masseuse and offers full-body relaxation massages on your deck. And pristine beaches at Bawley Point, Kioloa and Pebbly Beach (popular with kangaroos too) are just 30 minutes away.

Gratitude: Big thanks to Destination NSWDesigner Eco Tiny Homes and Tallarook Tiny Home - and to the lovely Karen and Brian Bennett for making our stay so wonderful. Up next: An interview with Designer Eco Tiny Homes builder Grant Emans...

Friday 3 May 2019

Tiny house review: "Edmond" in the NSW Southern Highlands

Some daydreams do come true. I've been a bit obsessed with tiny houses for a while now - reading books like Cabin Porn, watching docos like Small is Beautiful and Minimalism and Living Big in a Tiny House's reviews, even doing a weekend tiny-building workshop with Fred's Tiny Houses (reviewed here).
A shepherd's hut in the UK

But it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I actually stayed in one. Well, four actually - two in NSW and two in Victoria - during a road trip down the east coast of Australia with Mr No Impact Girl. 

I was researching a story about "tiny house stays", which are a thing now, but it was also a personal quest. Would staying in a tiny house live up to my hopes and imaginings? And would it be a good way to find out if I'd like to live in one?

To ponder these questions, I decided to review each tiny here, in four separate posts.

Hello, Edmond
Tiny house #1: Edmond
My first-ever experience of staying in a tiny house was with In2theWild in the NSW Southern Highlands, an area liberally sprinkled with tinys - thanks to its abundance of farmland just a couple of hours' south of Sydney.

Not that you'd ever see them. They're tucked away on private properties, each tiny on its own secluded patch, addresses unknown until you book - which adds to the sense of adventure.

We arrive on a stormy afternoon, rain squalls lashing our windscreen as we drive through the hamlet of Robertson, along muddy roads and through an open farm gate. Parking beside a barn, we find a big umbrella and a little cart - for our overnight bags and some groceries - and set off on foot along a short forest track that soon emerges at a vividly green meadow.

Tiny house, big view. Pic: In2theWild
Right at that moment, as we amble across the paddock, the sun comes out and shines on our home for the night: a lone tiny house called Edmond, named after the main character in The Count of Monte Cristo (In2theWild's owners are avid readers).

A bit of background
"Tiny house stays" - usually short breaks close to major cities - started in Australia in 2016 when Melbourne-based Shacky built a shed-like tiny on a sheep property in Victoria as a social enterprise to help farmers supplement their income.

"You are here" in the kitchen
A year later In2theWild opened its first tiny, called Christopher after Chris McCandless in Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (one of my favourite books; it was also made into a movie in 2007). They rolled out nine more tinys last year and are planning 10 more this year.

"We love tiny houses," says Celeste Giannas, In2theWild's director of operations, "and with emerging off-grid and eco-friendly technology they allow us to provide relaxing getaways in beautiful, secluded locations where people can really switch off from their busy lives and experience some of the hidden gems of regional NSW."

Daybed with a view
Pic: In2theWild
First impressions
I couldn't have asked for a more delightful introduction to tiny house living. Edmond is an almost stereotypical tiny with its classic gable roof and peaceful location: on 40 hectares (100 acres) of private farmland with plenty of trees and views of a nearby canyon.

It's the kind of place that makes you want to be a dog for a day or make daisy chains or just lie on the grass looking up at the clouds.

There's no one to meet us, and no need. Celeste had emailed me a 23-page pdf booklet explaining everything from where to find the key to how to make coffee (plunger and Moka pot provided).

As soon as we let ourselves in, the rain starts again, giving us the perfect excuse to light the gas stove, put the kettle on and cosy up on the L-shaped daybed with a cuppa and a book. 

Living proof
You can tell a lot about a tiny house by the books on its shelves, by the way. Edmond has an assortment of cabin-themed books including Cabin Porn, 150 Tiny Home Ideas and, naturally, Into the Wild.

My first thought: inside, Edmond is incredibly spacious. 

If anyone ever asks you, "Why not just rent a caravan?" tell them this: staying in a tiny house feels nothing like staying in a caravan, for three main reasons. Most tinys, like Edmond, have a loft bed, high ceilings (3.3 metres is standard) and huge double-glazed picture windows that let in plenty of natural light as well as views of the natural surroundings. 

Even the kitchen has a view
More "house", less "tiny"
Designed and built by Designer Eco Tiny Homes, probably the largest tiny house builder in Australia, Edmond really is like a small house with its white walls, wooden tables and benches, and contemporary decor (no cabin kitsch here). 

There's a compact kitchen that has a sink, two-burner gas stove and fridge (there's no oven) and an all-white bathroom with an excellent shower and a waterless composting toilet that smells of sawdust (and nothing else).

Edmond's solar PV panels
One of the things I love about tiny houses is that they not only have a small footprint but are usually off-grid. Edmond has solar panels on its roof and a rainwater tank outside. It's nice to see Who Gives a Crap toilet paper, made by a Melbourne-based brand that builds toilets in developing countries.

They also let you travel light, because everything except food is provided - though we did find a "Survival box" (see pic) waiting for us on the table, a nice touch. There are fluffy towels, there's bed linen, the kitchen is fully equipped, there are even wine glasses in the cupboard, as well as a few basic items such as tea and coffee, hot chocolate, sugar, cooking oil, salt and pepper. There's soap, shampoo and conditioner too, though it'd be nice to see these in refillable bottles rather than tiny single-use hotel tubes.

The tiny equivalent of a mini bar
Silent night
Without mobile reception or Wi-Fi, the night feels long, in a good way. It's too rainy to roast marshmallows over the campfire - the firepit is ready to go, ringed by stumps to sit on - so we make an easy pasta dinner, read and play Scrabble and Jenga (there's also Monopoly, colouring books and pencils).

Headroom galore in the loft
With our phones off, I'm not sure what time we went to bed, climbing the ladder cleverly built into one end of the kitchen bench so the lower stairs are wide, like shelves. Outside was utter darkness; we couldn't see a single light.

One of the things I like about being in a small space is that nature is always close at hand. When we open our eyes the next morning, we can see only blue through the skylight. No clouds. I push it open and feel the cool highland air, then we snuggle back under the duvet before venturing down the ladder and outside to have breakfast in the sun, at our very own picnic table.

Captain Skylight
The verdict
After all I'd read and heard about tiny houses, nothing compares to the simple joys of staying in one: cooking while looking at a green paddock and acres of sky, reading a book on the daybed in the sun, taking hot rainwater showers and sleeping in a loft.

I loved how peaceful it was there, off-line and with no one else around. I could almost feel my nervous system calming down.

Edmond was supremely cosy in the cool, rainy weather; loft beds come into their own in such a climate, being warmer than the downstairs living area. On a clear night, sitting beside a campfire under the stars, it'd be magical.

Although it wasn't built for long-term living, we stayed only one night and Edmond isn't as long as some tiny houses I'd seen (5.4 metres compared to 7.2 metres), the experience did help me imagine what it might be like to live in a tiny house. I loved that everything is within reach, and I saw first-hand how tidy and organised you need to be, particularly if there are two of you sharing the space. My partner and I developed a little floor-sharing dance to cross-step out of each other's way, which was fun.

Barefoot on the wet grass
That's the takeaway from this first experience, in fact: it was really fun.

For all their clever design features, sustainable ethos and sturdy construction (to withstand towing), there's something gloriously un-serious about tiny houses. Not quite whimsical - after all, real-world issues sparked the tiny house movement (climate change, housing affordability...) - but perhaps light-hearted, and liberating. Personally, I'm hooked. Now more than ever.


How to do it: In2theWild has 10 tiny houses in various locations a couple of hours from Sydney starting at $179 a night. Edmond starts at $299 a night and sleeps four. See

Southern Highlands beauty
While you're there: Robertson is a charming rural-chic town in the NSW Southern Highlands. Immerse yourself in local life at the Crop Swap farmers market on Saturday mornings, by wild-swimming at nearby Belmore Falls or Nellies Glen (Gerringong's beaches are also only 40 minutes away) or hang out at Moonacres ethical cafe or Rush cafe in the historic Robertson Cheese Factory.

Gratitude: Big thanks to Destination NSW, In2theWild and Designer Eco Tiny Homes for supporting my first-ever tiny house stay. I'll roll out my reviews of the other three tiny houses in coming weeks - Tallarook Tiny Home, Fred's Tiny House and Micah by Unyoked - as well as an interview with Grant Emans, director of Designer Eco Tiny Homes. Watch this tiny space.