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.)


  1. great piece Lou. I'm impressed and would love to see photos as you progress. And have fun building - wish I was younger and had more energy to do the same!

  2. Great story telling as usual Lou.Its great to watch from the sidelines of life, your dream come true.

  3. So exciting! It will be wonderful!

    1. Thanks Sarah, I sure hope so with all the research I'm doing! I forgot how much I love learning about new things - and there are plenty of new things to learn about on a tiny house build!