Wax and wane of tiny housing, part 1

I’ve been doing okay blogging here about some of our lessons, recording references and filling in our Hackpad wiki. But there’s more to learn from than the ‘lessons’… especially the sort of things that are easy to lose if you don’t write them down. Its very hard to remember what it was like to be ‘at the beginning’. So for posterity’s sake, I’m starting a recount of the waxing and waning and shifts in perspective.

Way back when (12 odd months ago, in March 2015) I knew what a ‘tiny house‘ was, but that was about it. I didn’t have all that much interest in them, if I’m honest. There weren’t many around, and they weren’t overly relevant to me. I’m the kind of person that dismisses stuff that isn’t relevant. I had recently started working in construction (as a side income to running my own business as a facilitator and engagement consultant), but I was there specifically so that I could keep my intellectual and creative attention focused on my business.

So when a half dozen or so different friends expressed their fascination with tiny houses over the course of a month, a little switch flicked over. I had dismissed all of this talk… none of them was actually going to build one, so I had mostly glazed over when they came up. But I realised that… well there’s no good reason that we couldn’t. On an individual level, building a tiny seemed novel, but overly difficult. Together, on the other hand… surely we could pool our resources and it would be a walk in the park?

This was the first little shift in the tiny house journey; and if my reading of tiny house forums is anything to go by, 98% of people willing the movement on never get this far.

This idea also presented itself as a perfect foil. When I proposed to my friends that we should get together and build ourselves houses, I was certain they would all admit that their tiny house musings were pure fantasy, and next time the topic came up I would have the required ammunition to shoot the conversation down and move on to something more pragmatic.

Well they showed me. Without fail, each one of them considered it for a moment and responded “hmmm… you know what Baxter, a tiny house builders co-op is pretty cool idea; I’d be part of that.” Which meant, I supposed, that I was in too.

So over a couple months of testing chats, strategising, lining up “first movers” and “potential builders”, business models and project pathways, I somehow found myself convinced that there’s actually something in this tiny house thing, and in particular in cooperative models for self-determination in housing. Not only something that’s doable, but something that is really worth doing, that is engaging, and that I’m in a position to get on with.

Of course the inevitable ‘project pathway’ was some variety of over-ambitious stagnation. Nobody was really ready, or as keen as I had interpreted. Everybody realistically couldn’t fit becoming a (tiny house) builder into their current planned pathways. And building their own tiny house was something that would be happening later, when they were “ready”.

None of this was surprising, but I was somewhat put back by the difficulty in finding a compelling path to move forward and build the momentum.

I was by this stage convinced at least, that there is something in (tiny) housing for me to be doing, so I plugged on. I booked in for a 6 day tiny-house-on-wheels building course in Victoria, knowing that that sort of experience would be useful in any case, even though I was in no position to start building myself.

Before the workshop even started though, I had realised that the workshop was actually a crutch for a disability that didn’t exist. If I had wanted to —and more importantly, made the decision to do it— I could have been building a tiny house already. By the time the workshop came around, I had a good mix of hands on experience (and had demonstrated that I had the aptitude for navigating building projects), and knew as much as most in Australia about tiny house planning, approvals and issues. I was under no false impression that I had the experience of an actual builder or carpenter (nor will I for some time), but that depth of experience isn’t needed to make a start. If anything, the workshop was my excuse to put off making a commitment until some point “in the future”; because I made the workshop out to be more critical a component than it really was.

Much as I talk down the importance of the workshop, it was a great experience, and these two guys are legends.  We built Emmet Blackwell's house, with the help of carpenter Nick Matyevich.  I loved how they ran the workshop so much that we're bringing Nick to SA to run the workshop on our own build.
Much as I talk down the importance of the workshop, it was a great experience, and these two guys are legends. We built Emmet Blackwell’s house, with the help of carpenter Nick Matyevich. I loved how they ran the workshop so much that we’re bringing Nick to SA to run the workshop on our own build.

So this was my second little shift; realising that the only thing I needed to start building tiny houses was a house that needed building, and the willingness to commit to doing it. This was September/October 2015.

I still had no idea what the ‘first project’ would be, but I had decided for better or for worse, that the best way to ‘get started’ in tiny house building, and start to grow the momentum needed to establish a building program of real merit, was to build a tiny house, of any description.

I’m not exactly sure where I was at in my thinking over the next couple of months, but I focused on researching possibilities for programs of affordable tiny housing, understanding the housing system and challenges of affordability, and potential ways to pilot some sort of a build program. This doesn’t exactly sound in hindsight like the “getting started” step that was supposed to happen next, but there was still one particular piece of the puzzle that was needed for that: a tiny house worth building.

Late in 2015, sitting out the back of Sophia MacRae’s place, the opportunity in that backyard was impossible to avoid. Sophia’s a planner and local councilor into sustainable design and housing options (among many things), and even though she was only renting there, she sees the opportunity in the lot and is churning away on ways to make something good come of the inevitable redevelopment. But in the meantime, the backyard presents itself as a perfect opportunity for the ‘pop-up suburban infill’ that I have come to see as the greatest potential for growth of tiny affordable housing.

She was predictably enthusiastic about putting the backyard to use for tiny-housing, and this became the most promising route to get things rolling.

We still didn’t know what house would be built there. Michelle and I aren’t in tiny housing because we have a compelling dream to live in one ourselves. Our apartment is fine, we like living in the city, and living in a beautiful little tiny house probably isn’t worth the effort to build it.

While in Sydney for Christmas I couldn’t help but face up to the obvious conclusion, though. The ‘first project’ we were trying to find would of course be our own tiny house. We could have spent a long time weighing up options and implications, and being critical of this idea, but by this point, 9 months on from the start of my tiny house journey (and maybe 4 months since I realised I was “ready” to start building), I had done enough thinking and it was time to commit to something that would push the tiny housing project forward. It didn’t take much time to come to see this was the next step we “had to take”… (which by now was of course a “we”, whether Michelle liked it or not).

Okay, I’ve written enough for this morning and am going to leave it there – I’ll be back shortly to bring the story up to speed with where we are now in the project and some of the to-and-fro that has come with actually building a tiny.