“You’ll get cabin fever.” “You won’t get any sleep.” “You won’t make it.” Who: Web:
Melanie & Ben Brookes, Pippa (7), Kit (5), Sylvie (2) Where: Awaawaroa Eco Village, Waiheke Island www.awaawaroa.org
That was what we heard in 2013 when we announced to family and friends that we were running away from suburbia and moving to a tiny, off-the-grid cabin with an outdoor bathroom in an eco village on Waiheke Island.
Their reactions were, shall we say, mixed. The comment that we wouldn't make it was from my wonderful mum, who was seriously worried that her grandchildren were being whisked away to the 19th century.
Three years on, we're still living in the tiny cabin, and we're still making it. Our home is within the Awaawaroa Eco Village where we share, along with 14 other families, close to 160ha (400 acres) of land, a mixture of bush and pasture which curves around the shore of Awaawaroa Bay, at the southern end of Waiheke.
Our little house is 20 square metres. Yes, 20. That's not a typo. The average New Zealand house is about 150 square metres, so you could fit our house into the average home seven times, with room to spare.
We didn't set out to live in a tiny house. When we bought one of the 15 shares in the village, the cabin was already on our land, a gingerbread cottage sitting in a jungle of kikuyu grass.
The cabin is built entirely out of natural materials. It has macrocarpa cladding, pine and redwood lining, and recycled native timber floors and joinery.
It's split into two rooms. There's a lounge-kitchen-dining room where pretty much all our living happens, and a bedroom, where all five of us sleep. The bathroom is outside, with a composting toilet and outdoor shower.
We run a small scale market garden we call Little Creek Farm on our patch of land. There's a diverse range of vegetables – around 20 different types – with the aim of feeding island families. We sell our produce through a weekly vege box scheme, and at the local market.
We're entirely off the grid. Solar panels provide our power, enough to run a fridge, washing machine, laptop and lights, but not a lot else. Heating comes from a little potbelly stove and water is courtesy of the sky. No smart phones.
On a good day, it's all very Little House on the Prairie, but with running hot
water and broadband. On a bad day, with three kids bouncing off the walls and two parents shouting to be heard over the rain pounding on the roof, it’s more like a form of torture. Only self-inflicted.
I exaggerate, but there are definitely challenges to living in a tiny house, especially with children. Rainy days are tough. When we’re crowded into two small rooms, we do sometimes (quite literally) trip over each other. Small children can make a fair bit of noise and chaos at the best of times, but in a tiny space it all seems somehow… magnified.
It can also be hard to find private space. Time out needs to be either outside, or tucked up on one of the beds. The two older children have ‘bedroom space’ in their bunks, and they each have a set of shelves for their special things so they have an area to call their own.
Accommodating visitors is trickier. The dining table seats only five and even if it was extendable, there wouldn’t be any space for it to extend into. Bed space is even more of a challenge. We now have a cute little 1.5-seater couch that pulls out into a small single bed. Before then, when my mum came to stay she sometimes slept under the dining room table as it was the only floor space big enough for a mattress.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. We expected all this. Heck, we moved into a house that allowed just four square metres per member of the family. We knew there would be some difficulties.
What we didn’t expect was the surprising number of benefits, the positives of living in a tiny house that have changed our outlook on housing, on family, and even basic human ‘needs’.
From a practical point of view, a small house is quicker to heat and quicker to clean. I can clean all the windows in an hour or so, and cleaning all the inside surfaces doesn’t take much longer. Not that I do these things on a daily basis or anything. Just that if I did, it wouldn’t take too long. Hey, I have three small children: clean the windows and 10 minutes later there are peanut-buttery fingerprints at toddler height. It’s an exercise in futility.
Some of the benefits have been more abstract. We’ve learned to make do and to go without. When you’ve got less space, you have less stuff. As parents, it has been a great excuse not to buy unnecessary toys for our kids.
“I’m sorry sweetheart, we can’t get that life-size electronic dinosaur/2-metre-tall stuffed pink teddy/other piece of plastic rubbish – we just don’t have room.”
As a result, we’ve watched our kids play again and again with the same basic toys, inventing new games with the playthings that have been entertaining kids for decades: Lego, puzzles, books, wooden trainsets, miniature animals, toys that give a lot of joy for the space they require.