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This is my house, as it appeared in issue 69 of Renew Magazine. I heard later that it was their most popular issue ever! And that's me, standing in the front. I built this place when I was 22, and as you can see from the title, my budget was just $10,000. I had absolutely no building experience or skills, and most people, when I told them I was going to build my own house, laughed at me.
Now, many years down the track, I reckon it was the best decision I've ever made. I'm still living there, now with my partner Paula, and our son, Jesse. I thought I would share, on this blog, a little retrospective about my journey in building and living in this tiny house. I'll do this over a few posts. For today, I want to write about what led me to the decision to build.
I was 21, and had just graduated (top of my year) from my uni course, a Bachelor of Applied Science in Computer Science. I studied that course because I wanted to know how computers worked, and I wanted to have a way to make money, so that I could support myself with my creative endeavours. Now I was under a lot of pressure from the various heads of department to stay on, do a masters and PhD, or to get a full time job in a bank and start working my way up. But after three years of study, I'd got what I wanted from the course. I knew how computers worked, and I was equipped to make money. But I just couldn't face the job in the bank. The thought of it depressed me. So, encouraged by David, my boyfriend at that time, I took a year off, to do some creative stuff and generally take a breather and work out what was next.
At first I was uninspired. I ploughed on with my sewing and pottery, but the creative verve seemed to have vanished. David took me on a holiday to Northern NSW, and we stayed with old friends of his who lived in an amazing handmade community. For the first time in my life, I saw tiny handmade houses, and they appealed to me like nothing else. One of the people we stayed with lived in what could only be described as a shack in the woods. I couldn't believe that they could live in such a basic setting - no hot water, an outdoor kitchen, and the toilet was a hole some distance away, behind a tree.
I had grown up in the city, didn't really like spending much time outside, and definitely appreciated the comfort that we Westerners often take for granted. However, I discovered, to my surprise, that I was actually tough enough to live happily in Suzy and Greg's shack. I found it charming, sweet, and delightfully connected with nature. Every morning I could see Suzy tending the vegie patch. I knew nothing about growing food but was intrigued.
One afternoon I helped Greg with some minor repairs to the place, and as I discovered I could actually get a nail to go in, with a hammer, I asked him how hard it would be to build a shack like this, how much it would cost. "Oh, this place was maybe ten grand," he told me. From my years of odd jobs as a teen, I had saved up ten thousand dollars, and had it sitting in my bank account, waiting for a rainy day. Suddenly, building a tiny cottage like this seemed like an excellent use of the money in my account. I could live in it for a few years, and then when I got sick of the rustic lifestyle, I could move back into something more comfortable and use it as a holiday house. A few quick sums and I realised that at the price I was renting now, I'd have to live in my cottage for three years to make it financially viable.
I began to grill Greg on the finer details. Bless him, he was amazingly encouraging. He talked me through a rough budget (allow two grand for the floor, two for the roof...etc), and put into my hands a book of stories by owner builders. One very enchanting hut had been built by a 15 year old boy, and I thought, that if he could do it, so could I. Greg and David both knew I completely lacked practical building skills, but they agreed with me that the best way to acquire these skills was to just do it.
I spent the rest of the trip dreaming and drawing my ideas. My creative flame had been lit and I found myself treating it like another art project, albeit the biggest one I'd ever undertaken. The house would look like a tiny chapel. I sketched it out.
Or perhaps I should build a tower, a round one. Or a cave dug out of the earth? I drew up lots of ideas but I kept coming back to this one. It would be one room with a loft, the composting toilet outside. I would cut my energy use to survive with just one solar panel. I'd put in a water tank, and learn how to grow vegies. I couldn't decide - the same size as Greg and Suzy's place (5m x 7m) or a bit smaller (4m x 6m). In the end I settled for the latter. I wasn't sure my $10,000 would stretch to the larger size, and I lacked confidence. I really wasn't sure I could actually build something so big. Years later, I'd wish I'd settled on the larger size, but at that time I simply couldn't believe I'd live there more than a few years. I couldn't envisage I would build a place that would be home to a family, for decades!
Next question: where to build it? I knew land in the country was cheap - maybe that was the best option. When I got home I started scanning the classifieds, and I understood that to buy land acceptably close to Melbourne, I'd need to spend about $20,000. Time to put my computer skills to work and earn some money. I got myself a job, failing to mention to my bosses that I planned to quit once I'd amassed the additional $20,000 I'd need for land.
I had to work for just over a year, wearing a corporate suit, while I lived the cheapest possible life at home. I spent that year talking to everyone I knew to glean tidbits of knowledge, and reading books. I made detailed budgets, designed and re-designed every aspect of my home as I learnt more. I found a block of land in King Lake, and almost signed on it. At the very last minute I backed out. I was nervous about moving to the country - I wasn't ready yet. I'd started circus classes and was loving them. I couldn't really see myself commuting to Melbourne three times a week.
I started wondering if I could build something temporary. Build the place in the city, and then later pick it up on a truck and move it to my land in the country. I remembered that when my parents moved out of the house I grew up in, they hadn't sold it. It was rented out to tenants who had trashed the back yard. It had a big garden, and I wondered if my folks would let me clean it up in exchange for using it to build my house. I suggested this to my dad, and was surprised by how encouraging he was. "Don't build a temporary hut though. Put up something solid and permanent. Build with bricks, make it really good."
So, I put the $20,000 into a savings account for later, and began the humungous job that was cleaning up the land behind my childhood home.
Read the next post about my house.