The journey of a total rookie building an off-grid sustainable tiny house on wheels. Alice opens a door into the world of simple living with some tips for would-be tiny builders.
Out the back of Byron Bay, my partner and I are about halfway through building our tiny house on wheels. This isn’t just about living in a smaller space or saving some rent, but part of a broader life philosophy, shared by van lifers, Henry David Thoreau, and probably everyone who frequents this website – escaping the grind, simplifying and minimising, living for experiences, not stuff.
From the constantly shifting reason why, to learning a new language, to exactly how we manage the toilet situation, this article will give you an insight into our journey into the tiny house community, and how you can join in too.
1. Why There Are so Many Reality TV Shows about Tiny Houses
One of the biggest realisations for me during this process was that a tiny house is so much more than just a little place to live. It’s a growing counter-culture that’s inspired alternative thinkers around the world, is providing homes for the homeless and has rapidly become a connected community.
The tiny house movement is a world of creativity; people construct small living areas (usually 10-40m²), often on trailers, with very little legislation determining shape, size or structure. To give you an idea, the floorspace of the average Aussie home is 241m². Our home is 18m². After living in vans, a Troopy and on ships, this is a huge amount of private space, but also forces us to keep life simple, with less stuff and more of our life lived outside.
On the Central Coast, Coffs Harbour and in Melbourne’s inner-west, tiny houses are being built for low-income and homeless people. In El Salvador, 3D-printed homes are being trialled as a solution to poverty and natural disasters. This isn’t a new concept – in 1845 Thoreau moved into a cottage in the woods and wrote seminal book Walden about his experience – but in the last couple of years it’s spread to become a global movement.
2. The Real Motivation for Living Tiny
Initially this idea appealed to me economically – by building my own little space, I could avoid paying lots of rent, have somewhere to store my stuff, and avoid those mind-boggling mortgages. But as we started designing, our little home took on a mind of its own.
It became a holy grail of sustainability, a little bit of the planet that I could control and didn’t use fossil fuels. A dwelling built of second-hand materials. An off-grid haven to counter the frequent flights and travel that my life entails.
As with most things in life, the result is a compromise – a combination of epic daydreams and wild ideas mixed with a good helping of reality (the limitations of time and money). The frustrating side effects of second-hand flooring nearly led to me set the whole thing on fire. We bought second-hand windows and doors, but we also spent a lot of time buying shiny new things at Bunnings.
Ultimately we found a balance between the perfection of Instagram/our imagination, the realities of wanting to know where our timber was logged and a relatively small budget.
3. What the Heck Nogs* and Nibblers Are
With our building experience limited to a few D&T classes and some fooling around with hand planes, building a tiny house came as a world of confusion. We spent our breakfasts watching educational videos on window installation and exterior claddings, then figured the rest out as we went.
*FYI – A nog is a small block or peg made of wood. A nibbler is a tool used to cut sheet metal.
4. Exactly Where Your Poop Goes
Here’s a fun fact I learnt during our build: in a world where many don’t have access to drinking water, we use about six litres of clean water every time we flush the toilet. Tiny houses don’t have this luxury and instead use anything from bucket toilets (I recommend the Humanure Handbook if you’re thinking about this) to expensive composting toilets.
When completed, our house uses solar for electricity (powering lights, appliances, chargers, an induction stove and an electric oven) and stores rainwater. It has a biogas digester system that collects toilet and food waste, composts them, and pipes the collected methane gas emissions back into our house to power a gas stove – a method of waste-to-energy used in around 30 million homes in China.
There is a whole magical world of off-grid alternatives out there just waiting to be put into use in tiny homes.
5. You Get by with a Little Help from Your Friends
We were fortunate enough to have generous tradie friends who responded to our urgent phone calls from the aisles of Bunnings. While I wholeheartedly believe you can learn what you need from the internet and good books, there are definitely times when you should phone a friend. Or pay an expert.
Most of the time you can just ‘add character’ to your home with gaps in floorboards or wonky stairs, but installing electricity is something you should probably not mess around with.
6. Tiny House Legislation Is Basically 50 Shades of Grey
Currently, tiny houses on wheels are classified as caravans, which means that they have to meet certain road regulations (less than 2.4m wide and 4.3m tall, under 4.5 tonnes) but have very few other requirements. Putting them on blocks as a fixed structure is another story.
Rules regarding living in caravans vary from council to council in Australia, and in most areas it’s illegal to stay in them full-time. If you’re planning to park in someone’s city backyard, this may be a problem. Many people rent a paddock or a bush block somewhere and stay under the radar. The main concern here is waste, so a good off-grid system is key.
Sucking The Marrow out of Life
Thoreau’s motivation for life in the woods was ‘to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.’
For us, living deliberately saves us money, frees up time spent housekeeping, and gives us a chance to live our values. It’s opened up a community of inspiring people who live on their own terms. It’s committing to a house, without committing to a location, and the freedom that comes along with that. It’s less possessions and more time outside.
Building a tiny house has been a whole new type of adventure, but has touched me in the way all the best adventures do – helping me to live authentically, changing perspectives and giving back to the planet.
Follow the build on Instagram.