Monday, 10 August 2020

A new adventure: My tiny house project begins

Let me start this with a wish - that you and those around you are safe and well, in all ways, in these "interesting" times. The small town where I live by the sea in New South Wales has been spared the worst of it (so far) and I'm grateful for that. My travel wings have been clipped of course, but I'm surviving by the grace of the Australian government's wage subsidy and since lockdown my life has resumed fairly normal dimensions, albeit with more baking, winter beach-walking and veggie-growing than usual.

Tiny desk inspiration
from Vina's Tiny House
Covid-19 has also given me an unexpected bonus: time and energy to work on a new project - designing and building my own tiny house.

It's exciting and a bit daunting, possibly the biggest project I've ever taken on. One that involves thinking deeply and widely about how I want to live, what I really need, and how to make my new home as sustainable as possible, both during and after the build. (It helps that my "tiny" will have a floor area of only 25 square metres, but apparently building in the developed world accounts for 40 per cent of global carbon emissions.) 

So consider this my first progress report, with more to follow in the coming months.

Laying the "foundations"
My Norwegian cabin
(for two weeks, in 2014)
It's fair to say this tiny house adventure has been waiting to hatch for a while now. Ever since my dad built a cubby for my brother and me, when I was about 10, I've loved the simplicity of small spaces, an addiction that's easy to satisfy when one travels for a living. 

Just remembering all the tents and tatami rooms, earthships and beach shacks, treehouses and micro-hotels I've stayed in over the years, not to mention ships' cabins and a real cabin in the woods in Norway, makes me (and my inner introvert) feel happy and cosy inside.

So it was inevitable I'd get swept up in the tiny house movement. Though it's technically about dwellings with less than 37 square metres (400 square feet) of floorspace, it's really about living more simply, sustainably and communally. 

Lennox Head library finds
I did a natural building course four years ago, then a weekend "How to build a tiny house" workshop run by Fred's Tiny Houses in 2018 (now online through Fred's Tiny House University). I stayed in tiny houses and wrote about them for Traveller last year. I've borrowed books from the library and watched countless Living Big in a Tiny House and Never Too Small clips on YouTube.

All of which has been taking me in a new direction - at a glacial pace. I had a bit of money saved, but I didn't have a timeline in mind or a place to park a tiny house. Then 2020 came along, a friend told me I could build my tiny on his land, and I suddenly had time to design and plan. The stars were aligning. 

What's the plan?
Like a lot of tiny houses, mine will be on wheels, on a purpose-built trailer 7.2 metres (24 feet) long and 2.5m (8') wide - dimensions that make it roadworthy and able to be classified as a caravan in Australia, so it doesn't require a building permit. Unlike most caravans, however, it'll be 4.3m (14') high with two lofts (one for sleeping, one for lounging and meditation) and big windows, making it feel spacious and airy. 

Love this one: Hauslein's
Little Sojourner
To keep the costs down, I'm building it myself - with Mr No Impact Girl and a builder friend as well as various tradies (Aussie for "tradesmen") we know who are sparkies (electricians) and chippies (carpenters), painters and plumbers.

Naturally I want to make it as low-impact as possible. 

We'll be using natural, sustainably sourced and/or recycled materials whenever we can. Friends have given us surplus timber for a deck. When neighbours cut down a camphor laurel tree recently, we scored some slabs for stair treads. We've bought and found second-hand a kitchen sink, a bathroom basin, hardwood flooring and some corrugated steel panels. 

And this one: by French 
tiny designer Baluchon
My vision is a sort of contemporary cabin with lots of wood. There'll be a desk under a big north-facing window, stairs up to my loft bed, a galley kitchen, a deck (with an outdoor bath!) and a bathroom with shower and composting toilet. And it'll be off-grid with solar panels, tank water and gas for cooking and hot water.

Pre-build preparations
Things got real about a month ago when I ordered a galvanised steel trailer from Fred's Tiny Houses (which has arguably THE best tiny trailers in Australia). After being a semi-nomadic renter for almost 30 years, it felt like a big step.

A masking-tape map
of my tiny house
Until the trailer is delivered in September and we can start building the tiny house on it, I'm filling my days (and some nights) with tiny thoughts. 

I'm finalising the floor plans - the low-tech way, with a pencil and ruler on graph paper, sometimes mapping them out on the floor (and the beach) to see how the spaces feel. Ordering windows (who knew windows required so much thought?). Researching everything from western red cedar and Colorbond cladding to sustainable insulation (hemp vs sheep's wool vs recycled polyester batts) and how all the elements fit together.

I'm doing my best to prepare myself for the hands-on part too. Bought myself a tool belt, a tape measure, safety glasses and a pair of ear muffs. A few weeks ago, I did a short, super encouraging woodworking course run by women, through Shedding in Mullumbimby. 

Ta da! My first woodworking 
assignment, ever
Then I practised my new carpentry (and power tool) skills by rebuilding a chair and a table with some old hardwood floorboards - under the watchful and very patient eyes of Mr No Impact Girl. 

Lessons learned so far
Already this tiny house is changing my life in surprising ways. It's making me stop and look and take an interest in built structures I come across, see my surroundings with new eyes, think about space and how we use it, take pictures of windows and door frames, roof angles and cladding. 

I'm on a near-vertical learning curve and it's totally absorbing, engaging on every level. It's like visiting a new country, where I don't speak the language - although I am learning to speak "builder" (by talking in millimetres, for instance). I often feel lost and disoriented, but I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing right now. And I'm learning new things every day.

Here are five of my most recent lessons:

A tiny house door
doubles as a window
1. Things have standard dimensions. Who knew that most kitchen benchtops, in Australia at least, are 900mm high or that doors are 820mm wide? Not me. I've gone from being a word-nerd to a building nerd. Instead of always carrying a notebook, I now take my tape measure wherever I go and measure things like windows and couches that I like the look of.
2. Compromise is part of the deal. Building an all-natural tiny house made of recycled this and ethically sourced that might be possible with unlimited time and money, but for most of us it's about doing our best to build the most beautiful, liveable and sustainable tiny house we can with the resources we have. 
Oh, and the most sustainable building materials are often NOT the most readily available, so finding them can take time and commitment. 
3. The learning happens whether you're aware of it or not. Some days I'd spend hours online and feel as if I've made zero progress - until a builder friend told me that just doing the research gives me knowledge that will help with future decisions. I've also learned the value of beginner-to-beginner advice, particularly on Australian Tiny Houses, one of the most useful tiny house Facebook groups I've found, where everyone helps each other.
4. Even small houses are complex. Although the point of tiny house living is to simplify life, building any kind of house makes life complicated, for a while at least. Tiny houses also have added challenges: they have to be well-designed (to maximise the use of space), lightweight and roadworthy, and well-ventilated (unlike their North American counterparts where keeping warm is an issue, Australian tiny houses need to stay cool in summer, particularly where I live).
5. I can do this! The more I learn and talk to people about this project, the more convinced I become that it's all going to be ok. Sure I'm going to be out of my comfort zone for the next few months, possibly longer, and I'm going to make plenty of mistakes, but I'm learning how to be more wabi sabi (at one with imperfection) and trying to trust the process.

Making friends with power tools
Besides, as one tiny house guru put it, you never really build a tiny house on your own. I've experienced this already, been humbled by friends offering to help plan or paint or put up the timber framing (I'm picturing an Amish barn-raising, which I realise is totally unrealistic for a seven-metre house, but it makes me smile). 

There's a quote I love that's often attributed to Goethe*: "Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid." A fitting mantra, I think, for this tiny house adventure. 

And a gentle reminder that there's very little in life we do entirely on our own. We're all interconnected, interdependent, in big and small ways. Takes the pressure off, doesn't it? And isn't it amazing when what you need - a tool, a book, a kind word - appears as if by magic at the very moment you need it? 

~

Stay tuned for updates and wander over to my No Impact Girl Facebook page for pics when the build starts in September...

*Even Cameron Crowe gave Goethe credit for this quote in his movie Almost Famous, but the real author  was apparently Canadian clergyman Basil King who wrote in 1921, "Go at it boldly and you'll find unexpected forces closing around you and coming to your aid." (Yep, I'm still a word-nerd, and always will be.)

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

A postcard from home, with love and wonder

"For most of our time on this planet, people usually spent their lives within a few hundred miles of where they were born, doing much the same thing each day with the same people in their band or village, embedded in a culture that changed little from century to century," says psychologist and author Dr Rick Hanson* in a weekly e-missive that landed in my inbox recently.

"These external factors provided a stable sense of home, but they are largely tattered, even shattered, today," he says. Until now.

In other words: it's natural to be home, despite our nomadic roots and our lifestyles of the past generation or so fooling us into thinking otherwise.

Footpath sign of the times
The experiment
I've been thinking a lot about this global social experiment we're all taking part in thanks to COVID-19, wondering how being confined for a while to our homes and our neighbourhoods might change us in the long-term. What will we gain, and lose?

I'm not ignoring the suffering the virus and its accompanying lockdowns, shutdowns and travel bans have brought to many. We might be all in the same boat, but we're not in the same storm, as someone said on social media the other day. For some of us, this might be a relatively peaceful pause in "normal" transmission; for others it's a life-changing hurricane, washing them out to sea and the unknown on a serious scale.

Exactly
Meanwhile the planet and its non-human inhabitants are getting a much-needed break from the "plague on the Earth" as Sir David Attenborough has called humankind. (His new doco looks great, by the way, about how the world can stop climate breakdown.)

Coronavirus cabin fever
Like a lot of people, I've been on an emotional see-saw for the past six weeks or so, which is one reason this post has been a long time coming. With everything constantly changing, on the inside as well as out there, I haven't quite known what to say.

At first, I overdosed on news, grimly fascinated by the speed with which everything, everywhere, shut down. I got anxious and overwhelmed. Then came a sense of solidarity and connection; we were all in this together, everyone was checking in on each other. Right now I feel a sort of coronavirus calm, as I settle into this new normal.

Toeing the social distancing line
I'm grounded, of course, like everyone, thankful not to have been stranded far from home when countries began to close their borders. And officially unemployed; I sent off my last commissioned travel story a week ago.

Concerned friends have asked if I miss travel, which is understandable. But I don't. Of course I love being away (and wrote about that in my most recent Traveller story Don't dream it's over), but travel has changed so much since I started travel writing 20 years ago and I've been growing increasingly uncomfortable with that.

Also (this might surprise some of you), I really love being home.

I'm aware that I'm undeservedly lucky to live where I do. Here in northern NSW, Australia, peace has settled on this little coastal town like a weighted blanket. Cafes and restaurants are open only for takeaways, events have been cancelled, shops are closed, people are staying home. There's less traffic on the roads. No tourists from out of town. Life is suddenly simpler.

The great slow-down
Unlike some of my colleagues, I don't want to use this precious time for professional development. I'm not planning to learn a new language or plotting where I'll go when borders re-open. As a writer, I'll always find something to do. But I don't want to be busy right now.

I want to slow down. And rest. To write when ideas surface, unforced and unhurried by deadlines, to be word-less sometimes, to make the most of this strange time to look around and experience where we are.

Homemade vegan fudge, mmm
So I'm cooking, mending, singing and decluttering. The things I am learning are practical and homely - how to bake bread, grow vegetables, make stuff with wood, skills that might be useful in coming years. (Global emissions might have dropped lately, but the climate crisis will be waiting for us when this is all over.)

Of course I'm slothing on the couch too and watching more movies than usual (DVDs in this low-tech household).

Worth getting up for
But I'm also waking up early more often to see sunrises, to surf or walk on the beach, to enjoy those perfect autumn mornings when the sea is brushed smooth by offshore winds and you get to see a few dolphins or a nesting osprey before breakfast.

I love that there's time now for reading on rainy afternoons and evening lake swims. Some nights I light candles instead of watching TV and go to bed early (8.30pm last night!), getting back in sync with nature's rhythms.

Seedlings from Forage & Graze
The post-pandemic world 
A few days ago, I had to drive a short way out of town to pick up some seedlings for my infant vegetable patch. It felt liberating to venture outside my home area for the first time in six weeks, to see familiar green hills, farmhouses and winding tree-lined roads with new eyes.

How will it be when we're allowed to travel further afield again, I wondered. What will travel look like in the post-pandemic world? The Guardian's George Monbiot and National Geographic scribe Andrew Evans, two writers I deeply admire, have written about this lately; click on their names to read their brilliant and timely stories.

"We have been living in a bubble... of false comfort and denial," writes Monbiot. "Now the membrane has ruptured, and we find ourselves naked and outraged, as the biology we appeared to have banished storms through our lives."

We're not above the natural laws that govern all life on earth, in other words, no matter how clever we have become at insulating ourselves from them.

We need to tread more lightly
We'll need to travel less I think, and differently, appreciate the world more, be less human-centric. Remember that travel is a privilege, not a right, and comes with responsibilities - to respect and protect the planet we live on and depend on, just as we naturally look after our homes.

"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew," says another great writer, Arundhati Roy. "This one is no different. It's a portal, a gateway between one world and the next."

I sure hope so. As we hurtle, more slowly for a while, towards a climate tipping point, I hope we grow wings and wisdom in time. Until then please stay safe and healthy and be kind to yourself and others in your orbit. We really are all in this together, now and always.

~

*A mental health footnote: Dr Rick Hanson has an excellent podcast, Being Well, full of compassion and practical tips for dealing with life's issues; it's my go-to podcast whenever I'm feeling stressed or anxious.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Can we justify travel in the era of climate change?

While I gather my thoughts on this crazy coronavirus time we're all living through, I thought I'd share an episode of the Thoughtful Travel podcast created by my Perth-based travel media friend, the lovely and talented Amanda Kendle, aka Not a Ballerina.

Patagonia sunrise, 2017
Like a lot of us, Amanda has been riding the see-saw of climate change vs travel for a while, wondering if it's possible to find a sweet spot that allows us to still travel, without destroying the planet.

This week she tackles this head on, in episode 183 of her podcast, Justifying travel in the era of climate change - which features yours truly. There's no short answer, by the way, but Amanda has an uncanny knack for putting her interview subjects completely at ease, which lets our chat wander into interesting territory.

(Please note: although the podcast went live yesterday our interview was recorded six weeks ago, before we all stopped travelling and the world took a breather from humans for a while).

If you like what you hear, there are 182 more Thoughtful Travel episodes here covering everything from travel anxiety to living overseas. I'm in two other episodes about Australian tourism after the bushfires and the joys of small group travel. Check out Amanda's thoughts on "thoughtful travel" and how to be a thoughtful traveller too.

Big thanks to Amanda Kendle for giving me these opportunities to air and share my views out loud for a change, instead of in written form.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

After the bushfires: open for business, not business as usual

This week, for the first time this Australian summer, actually for the first time since September, the news is good: all bushfires burning in NSW have been contained, thanks to more than a week of drenching rain.

Blue Mtns on fire. Pic: City of Sydney
I've been wanting to write something about Australia's bushfire crisis for a while. And not wanting to.

So much has been written already, by great Australian writers Jackie French and Richard Flanagan, by former NSW Fire & Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins about why these fires are different. Even Wikipedia now has a page called the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season, a good overview of what happened and where.

And I wasn't directly affected. I didn't have to evacuate, take shelter in a community centre, gather on a beach under a blood-red sky without power, listening to ABC news updates on someone's wind-up radio.

A canary in crisis
But, like everyone I know, I was affected in other ways. Like everyone, I was shocked and devastated at the speed, ferocity and extent of the fires, at the suffering and the loss of so many animals and wild places.

All along the east coast, our skies were smoky. Our media outlets were awash with fire news. Everyone had the Fires Near Me app on their phones, to get live updates on fires and road closures. We called and texted friends and family members, those who still had mobile reception or Wi-Fi, to check they were ok.

Kangaroo in flight
Pic: Matthew Abbott, NY Times
We heard words like "catastrophic" and "unprecedented" - some have called this Australia's "pyro-hydro-climate crisis" - and tried to take in the facts: more than 10 million hectares of land torched, 34 people and more than a billion animals killed (and that's just the mammals, birds and reptiles), endangered species driven to extinction, more than 2400 homes lost.

NASA estimated that these bushfires produced a massive 306 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, more than half of Australia's annual carbon emissions.

And the world looked on, alarmed. For good reason. This bushfire crisis was the planet holding humanity's head in its hands and saying, "Pay attention. This is your future if things do not change." And by things, it means everything.

Scorched south coast
South coast story
Last Sunday, I had a long talk with my friend Jane Darnell, who lives in Lake Tabourie on the NSW south coast, one of the areas hardest hit by the fires. Always a perceptive soul, she had an interesting take on how it was for her community.

When their town of about 700 people lost power, Wi-Fi and mobile reception, the house she shares with her partner Vince became a hub for neighbours and friends - because they have a landline phone, a gas oven and stove and, most importantly, a manual coffee-grinder. They even lent people cash until Eftpos and the ATMs were back in action.

"These fires have been enlightening on so many levels," Jane said. "They show where we're at as a society: you scratch the surface and the old Australia is still there in terms of the community bonds."

She told me of how the fire healed wounds between warring neighbours; two people who hadn't spoken in three years were reconciled when one helped save the other's house. "The fire burned away the detritus of everyday life," Jane said.

Wildlife feeding station
Pic: Jane Darnell
Now she's part of a group of dedicated locals walking the blackened forest leaving food for animals displaced by the fires: seed for native birds, fruit for the possums and bats, root vegetables for wombats and echidnas. "We're seeing wallabies again now. And the green [new growth on the trees] is creeping back. There is so much hope for us in seeing that green again."

Goodness blooms
Listening to Jane made me think of how far we've strayed from the simple life many of us seek and how a crisis can return us to it, connect us again with the earth and each other. Out of darkness, goodness blooms.

There's been a lot of love directed at bushfire-affected communities this summer. The Australian Red Cross received $140 million in donations. Comedian Celeste Barber and her celebrity pals raised a whopping $52 million for the NSW Rural Fire Service. Last weekend's Fire Fight Australia concert in Sydney raised almost $10 million.

Our heroes, the "firies"
The travel industry has been actively encouraging us to visit bushfire-affected regions that depend on summer tourism: the NSW south coast, the Blue Mountains near Sydney, the Snowy Mountains, East Gippsland in Victoria, and Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills in South Australia.

Travel writers have been reassuring international travellers that it's safe to come to Australia; two of my writer mates, Sarah Reid and Lee Mylne, wrote about this for National Geographic and Frommers. And Traveller did a cover story about 50 ways tourists can help Australia recover.

#LoveNSW, yes I do
Tourism Australia recently launched its Holiday Here This Year campaign, encouraging Aussies to see their own backyard. There's also a more localised #LoveNSW campaign.

There are clever online initiatives like itsmyshout.com.au, emptyesky.com.au and buyfromthebush.com.au, and #spendwiththem and #bookthemout on Insta, helping regional communities get back on their economic feet.

And the new Road Trip for Good website is constantly updating which bushfire-affected spots, all over Australia, are open for business again and welcoming visitors.

Not business as usual
But "open for business" isn't the same as "business as usual" - and it can't be. Helping communities recover is just a first step. Doing all we can to reduce the likelihood of bushfires and other symptoms of the climate crisis is the next one. Another travel writer I know, Kate Hennessy, put it this way: "Donating money makes us feel better, but I'm not sure we should be feeling better."

There's action on this front too. The Black Leaf Project asks people to send singed leaves and handfuls of ash to Members of Parliament to call for climate action. And MP Zali Steggall, in my old electorate of Manly in Sydney, will introduce Australia's first-ever Climate Act to Parliament on March 23 (sign here to support it).

Which brings me to why I think this blog post has taken me so long to write: I didn't want to just make a donation, sign a petition and get on with my life. I wanted to take meaningful action.

Tourism + climate action
I might live relatively simply and frugally at home, try to minimise my environmental impact in various ways. And I'm flying less than I used to, writing more stories from fewer trips. But flying internationally from Australia, even just a few times a year, makes my carbon contribution bigger than it should be.

Sometimes I use this guideline to check my impact: what would the planet be like if everyone did this? By that measure, I'm failing.

So I'm taking a leap.

Sydney's declaration last year
Pic: City of Sydney
You've probably heard about countries and local governments declaring a climate emergency - more than 1300 jurisdictions in 26 countries so far (including my local council, Ballina, late last year), representing 814 million people globally.

Well, travel has just stepped up, through a new initiative launched last month: Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. Since January 14, 68 travel companies, organisations and individuals have declared a climate emergency. And I'm going to join them.

It's more than a pledge to do the right thing. It requires developing a climate action plan, advocating for climate action, sharing your progress. I'll elaborate in a later blog post, once I take stock and decide what I can realistically commit to doing - and not doing - this year.

Already I've made a conscious decision not to fly anywhere for the first three months of this year and when I do take my first work trip for 2020 it'll be to New Zealand - a country that passed a bill last year to be "on the right side of history" by heading for zero emissions by 2050 - followed by a few no-fly domestic trips. But I know I can do more. And I will.