Have you ever longed for a simpler life or imagined being mortgage-free? Meet some people pursuing a new Australian dream. They’re wanting to live off the grid in tiny houses they’ve built themselves.
Geography teacher Stuart Dakin is spending his weekends and holidays building a tiny house, in which he intends to live on his girlfriend’s parents vineyard in the Yarra Valley.
“I bought the plans from a woman named Vina, an American architect who runs Sol Haus Design. She lives in her own tiny house, which is the same design as this one. I’ve had to adjust it to the Australian standards and I’ve modified it slightly to my needs,” Stuart said.
Tiny houses are usually built on a trailer. Stuart’s trailer is 6 metres long by 2.5 metres, which is about the widest it can be to travel on Australian roads. His finished house will be 4.2 metres high at it’s highest point.
Stuart is building his home at the property of Rob Scott, an organic farmer in Clarkefield, 45 minutes north-west of Melbourne. Rob’s family of five lived in a tiny house he built on an old truck while their farm house was being renovated.
“We got on better as a family because you can’t avoid each other in here…and we used outside more, which was lovely, even though it was the middle of winter. It’s nice and cosy when it’s wet and because it’s fully insulated it stays warm all night,” Rob said. “You get hugged by these little houses. With all the windows you never feel claustrophobic in them because there’s enough natural light and outside views. They’re very uplifting to be in.”
Rob has since built a number of tiny structures as bedrooms for his willing workers on organic farms, or WWOOFers, and runs tiny house workshops and camp outs in conjunction with the Tiny Houses Australia Facebook group.
Darren Hughes runs the Facebook group, and is interested in building his own off-grid tiny house. He sees a growing interest in the movement here due to two main factors: people want to live more sustainably and because of issues with housing affordability.
“I did an experiment last year where I lived for four weeks in my kitchen. I ran my business, I went out to see clients, I went to the shops, I went to the gym, but when I was in the house I was in that space. I had a mattress on the floor under the dining room table, practicing for when I’m in a loft,” Darren said. “The biggest issue for people is downsizing and getting rid of all their stuff” but “the material things people need can certainly fit in a tiny house.”
The average size of a new home in Australia is 243 square metres, the largest in the world, and the average home loan is $443,000. Monthly bills of over $3,000 for mortgage repayments and energy expenses are not uncommon for Australian households, tying many to stressful but highly-paid jobs that keep them away from their families.
Some people are starting to look for an alternative.
“In Australia, the only thing really still tying us to civilisation and the grid is internet. If you need a lot of data, relying on mobile broadband can be really expensive. In the States you can pay $39 a month for unlimited data. That hasn’t come in yet in Australia but hopefully it will. Everything else: composting toilet, water, electricity, gas, you can certainly go totally off-grid,” Darren said.
Film maker Jeremy Beasley spent the past two years travelling around America meeting tiny house enthusiasts there. His resulting film Small is Beautiful launched in March this year and Jeremy hopes it will inspire discussion about the ways we live here too.
The film doesn’t glamorise the lifestyle. On the contrary; it looks quite challenging. Building a tiny house takes much longer than expected and working outdoors through the cold of winter is hard work. The uncertainty of relying on the generosity of others to provide land would be unbearable for many, and there’s always the threat of neighbours complaining to council.
One of the reasons tiny houses are built on trailers is to get around planning laws and building regulations. They’re not a building and not a vehicle or a caravan, so local governments are often unsure what laws apply.
“Portland is a really unique place where the City is actually talking with tiny house people to try and change the laws. Hopefully Portland is a place others can look to use as an example,” Jeremy said.
Fred Schultz attended the film launch with his tiny house that is almost finished. He was featured in a recent SBS program with his wife and young child, who will live in it with him once it’s complete. Fred expects the final cost of his tiny house will be between $35,000 and $40,000 but says it’s possible to build for less if you’re not wanting to live off-grid. He’s building it in the front yard of a property in Templestowe and hopes to rent some land not far out of Melbourne once it’s done.
“We’ve got a neighbour who’s not a fan, and the planning department and the building department came to visit. They decided they were not there to tell people how to build their caravans. But then the woman complained again I think, and a guy came from local laws to determine whether it was a caravan or not,” Fred said.
Jo Mion has been told she cannot sleep in her vehicle on the street, so she is hoping to find owners of acreage or large backyards that will allow her to park her Mobile Shiatsu Clinic while she travels in it around Australia with her partner Nick.
“We don’t have stacks of money and the money we do have we don’t want to be using paying for camp sites. We have heaps of friends all around the country and I’m sure we will meet people who will be happy to have us on their property,” Jo said.
As well as massage, Jo teaches circus skills for Circus Oz as she used to be a flying trapeze artist. In the first year of their adventure Jo and Nick do have a few places they need to be at particular times for work. After that they have no definite plans and are prepared to be permanent nomads.
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