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. 

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