How I built my eco-house for only $10,000

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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.  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 thought I would share, on this blog, a little retrospective about my journey in building and living in this tiny house.

I Was A Bit Lost

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.

Finding Inspiration

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.

Dreaming And Drawing

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.

House drawing1

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!

Logistics

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.

Unfortunately just as the clean up was done, I was hit by a series of personal disasters: a major health complication requiring multiple hospital visits, an huge loss that launched me into 18 months of severe grief, and a boss who suddenly disappeared, meaning I never got paid the $3000 I had earnt on a contract, which I had planned to live on while I built my home.  This all set me back a bit, but eventually I landed on my feet, $3k poorer, grief-stricken, and in rather dodgy shape, physically.

In addition to this, I had also split up with my boyfriend, David.  The project had always been my project, not his, and our break up simply meant I wouldn’t have his encouragement as I built.  But I admit to feeling a little nervous about embarking on it entirely solo.

Some Help From A Friend

Happily, a friend of mine, Andrew, who lived interstate, told me he wanted to build his own house someday, knew nothing about building, and wanted to help me out so that he could make all the mistakes on my house, not his.  He came down for three weeks, and together we put up the frame for my house.  He taught me how to use a level and other basic building tools.

House1

Before his arrival, I borrowed my parents’ van and went shopping – for weeks!  It felt weird to go spending all that money, but I soon got used to handing over great wads of cash for second hand building supplies.  I came to know the cheapest salvage yards in Melbourne, and returned to them over and over, loading up the van with windows, roofing iron, a potbelly stove, a front door, floor boards, guttering, taps and light switches.

My brother had a shed that he no longer used, and came round with a friend to help me erect it.  I now had a place to store all my materials, and to eat lunch during the rainy winter days.  I had planned to build during warm weather, but thanks to my various setbacks, it was now autumn.

The three weeks with Andrew were immensely satisfying, as we worked fast, and by the time he left, the entire house had taken shape.  We put the roof on (I sat on the ridge and drilled while Andrew passed up pieces of iron and shouted directions to me), installed the windows I’d found from an old church, and nailed the front door into place.

House3

Andrew took this photo of me laying the bluestone bricks that formed the based of the mud walls.

On his last day, my parents called in to check on our progress, and were gobsmacked.  My mum had been telling people that I was building a shed in the backyard.  Suddenly she had to update her language: I was building a church.  Although I’m not even slightly religious, I believe our ancestors had a wonderful eye for aesthetics of buildings – the proportions, roof pitches and classic placement of windows and doors make for a visual feast, and I wanted to capture that wisdom in my own design: classic proportions.  With the gothic-arched stained-glass windows I had found, the look was complete.

Bricklaying Into Eternity

After Andrew’s departure, I launched into long, and mostly solitary days of brick-laying.  When I was a child, my brother had roped me into helping him build a brick cubby, and I was very grateful now for that experience.  If we could lay bricks before we turned ten, then surely I could do this now.  I had borrowed my father’s cement mixer, which he warned me was very much on its last legs.  In retrospect, I should have shelled out for something better, as I spent half my time on the building site trying to restart the damned thing.  My dad dropped in a few times to show me the basics in cement-mixer-repairs, and I swear I became far more proficient at that than I did at any aspect of actual building.

Friends dropped in from time to time to give me a hand, and I was always grateful to see them.  I put them to work moving bricks, and mixing mortar when the cement mixer would co-operate.  I found it was best to lay all the bricks myself, as teaching a visitor who was only onsite for a day or so seemed to be more hassle than it was worth.  Mortar invariably ended up smeared over the brickfaces and it was difficult to get them to sit straight.

House4

I was still battling with debilitating grief, and would often cry into the mortar while I worked.  And when the world became so bleary that I couldn’t see at all, I’d stop, lie down in the weeds, and cry until I felt cleansed.  Then I’d get up and lay some more bricks.  The house was literally built with the salt from my tears.

House2

I often worked through drizzle, and while I never enjoyed that, I did discover that I had come to enjoy being outside.  I no longer minded the wind on my face; I enjoyed the crispness of the air and the tactile experience of working with my hands all day every day.

I did have a problem with string-lines, though.  When you build with bricks, you are supposed to set up a string line to guide the bricks and ensure they are straight and level.  However, the posts were hardwood and I simply couldn’t get the nails to go in.  It seemed more hassle than it was worth.  I accepted that my bricks weren’t perfectly straight, and called it “character”.  Check out the wavy rows beside where I’m standing in the photo.  They look very charming here.  But one day I was building the inside kitchen wall, and just as I’d finished the cleanup and was about to go home, I realised that the wall curved inwards.  Badly.  I shrugged.  I’d just curve it outwards again with the next row, tomorrow.  But as I lay in bed that night, I couldn’t stop fretting about the wall.  I knew it was wrong.  It would be really hard to build kitchen shelves on a wall with that much curve.  What the other discrepancies were charming, I knew this was not.  I also knew that if I waited until morning, the mortar would be set so hard that I wouldn’t be able to take down the bricks.  Sighing, I got out of bed at midnight, pulled on my building clothes, grabbed a torch, and went back to my house.  I worked in the dark, pulling down my entire day’s work and scraping off all that hard-mixed mortar.  But I’m glad I did it.  And while it didn’t renew my commitment to stringlines, I was more careful after that.

While the frame of my house went up quickly, the bricklaying was much slower.  It took me 7 weeks of full time work, and I found that when I woke in the mornings, I couldn’t move my fingers.  The bricks were heavy, and as the walls got higher I had to lift them to shoulder height and beyond to lay them.  I was very relieved when they were done.

Laying The Floors

It took me just a couple of days to lay the floor in the tiny loft that holds our beds and bath, and then I set to work on the mud floor.  I can tell you now that the mud floor was a mistake.  I didn’t have the right kind of soil in my backyard (the clay was too mixed up with top soil), and so the floor never set.  It released dust for a whole year after I moved in, even when I covered it with a bamboo mat.  And then one morning I came downstairs to discover that not only had it rained heavily overnight, but I had accidentally left a tap running, and my house was completely flooded.  I took that as a sign to dig up the mud floor and replace it with a wooden one, which has been perfect.  But back when I was building my house, I didn’t know this was going to happen, and I just about broke my back to make that mud floor.  I dug out all the mud by hand, mixed it with water and cement in the cement mixer, repaired the cement mixer daily, and then carted it all to the floor, where I poured it in and discovered that the entire batch (which had taken hours), had filled only a few centimetres more of my floor.

Managing It All

Around this time I was joined by Kylie, who quickly became a good friend.  She was on holidays from school and wanted to fill her days with something interesting.  While I had help from many friends, the pattern was that they’d turn up, help me for several hours, then head off.  Sometimes it was just a once off, some people would come once a fortnight for a month or so, some would come every day for a week then not again.  It was very random.  But Kylie came day after day, and she didn’t just help with the manual labour, she started to help with the planning and organising.

I was pretty surprised what a big load the organising was.  For every four days on my building site I’d have to have at least another full day offsite, just ordering things that I needed, working out the proper sequence that things needed to happen, buying screws and nails, and contacting people who I was hiring to do some job or other.  Getting my head around all this stuff was really challenging, and my schedule had to be shifted every week as things moved around.  It was complicated, really complicated.  So far I had managed this entirely alone, but with Kylie I suddenly had someone to bounce off ideas with.  Should we varnish the floors now (meaning we can’t walk on them for a few days which means we’ll have to work on outside jobs for those days.. and which jobs should they be?) or wait until we’ve whitewashed the walls, but run the risk of damaging the floors with all the walking and whitewash?  At this point I really felt I was building the house with someone, and it was a great feeling not to be carrying the whole load alone.  Kylie stuck with the project right up until I moved in.

The Final Inspection

Before I could move in, an inspector from the council needed to come and approve my house.  The first time he came, I was very frustrated, because that day I had a (male) friend visiting me.  Even though this friend had only spent a few hours on my building site, the inspector insisted on speaking to him, not me.  My friend insisted, over and over again, that I was the one to talk to, but the inspector ignored that, and relayed to him the list of amendments that would need to be made before he would approve the place.  I was pissed off by his attitude.

This sort of thing had happened quite a few times already.  When I went to buy hardware, usually I was in my building clothes: ripped jeans, filthy flannelette shirt, and a cap, all poached from my brother.  I got treated like a tradie and that was fine.  But on the day I went to buy my kitchen cabinets, I was dressed in my street clothes – a pretty girly dress – and I probably looked like I was about 16.  The guy at the shop wouldn’t take me seriously, and insisted that I had to get my dad to sign the quote.  Even when I said my dad had nothing to do with the project, that I was the one with the money, he wouldn’t let me order anything without some man’s guarantee.  I didn’t buy any cabinets from there, I tell you.

Anyway, once I was up to the final inspection, I made sure I was wearing my building clothes, and I sent all my visitors next door so that I was alone on the site at the appointed time.  The inspector had no choice but to relate to me.  This time, thankfully, it passed, and once he’d left I brought all my friends back (a lot of them that day, weirdly), and we practically had a party onsite.

Moving In

There was still a bit of work to do before I moved in, and for a bunch of complicated emotional reasons, I was very fixated on the idea of being in by 16 February.  It was looking almost impossible, but Kylie and I worked longer and longer days, juggled harder and harder, to try and meet my deadline.  We decided I’d move in even though there was no real kitchen, nor running water, and I only had time to wire in one light.  I thought it might be a mistake to move in with it so unfinished, but the 16th Feb was important to me.

Actually, the night before I moved in, I had a major panic.  Was this all a huge, stupid mistake? Why was a throwing away a perfectly good flat to live in a shell that had no actual facilities?  How did I know I’d be happy there?  How did I know the design would work for me?  By Kylie urged me onwards, and stayed to help me set up my bed.

The first night was weird.  The light was this odd blue (it hadn’t occurred to me to actually test it), and the whole place felt a bit creepy.  But when I woke in the morning, the sun was shining through the stained glass windows, and the place looked and felt glorious.  There was an incredible, magical energy there.  As I started unpacking my boxes, I realised that my house was the perfect shape and size for me.  I had indeed designed the ideal house for what I wanted.  I set my plates on some shelves in my makeshift kitchen, and the whole place turned into a home.

House5

This photo is of me, on that very first day, unpacking and making home.  The grief I’d carried with me for a year started to lift, and I suddenly I was filled with joy, instead.

Living There

Living in my new house was heavenly.  I really appreciated that instead of having to get up, don my work clothes, and go to my building site, instead I could potter around at home and continue working on the place.  In my pyjamas I’d wire in more lights.  I’d whack a coat of paint on something while waiting for my pasta water to boil.  I loved the way my work on the house was so entwined with my everyday routines that it all just blended together to become “living”.

But one thing was really weird.  For the past seven months, from the start until I moved in, I had encouraged my friends and acqaintances to drop in.  They did, and they were used to wandering around the place until they found me.  There had never been any need to knock, or check it was ok to visit.  Everyone was welcome all the time.  If I was there, good.  If I wasn’t, they’d head off.  But now that I was living there, I didn’t like that I’d be standing in my undies getting breakfast, and suddenly someone I barely knew would just walk in the front door.  It took me quite a while to work out how to tell people that while I loved their visits, now that I lived there, they’d need to check it was ok, or at the very least, to knock!

‘Finishing’ It

I’m often asked when the house was finished.  I don’t have an answer to that.  My list of things to do around the place has never ended.  At one point I went out and did another computing contract, so I could buy a few extra things I wanted for the house, such as the bath and the solar hot water system.  Years later I had extra money from The Grimstones touring, and invested it in some home improvements such as a solar heating system and double glazed windows.  I found that before I’d completed the original list, I’d end up renovating something I’d already done, because my needs had changed (or because the floor flooded)… and so there was no day when I turned around and said, “right this is it, the place is done.”

Starting The Garden

Once I was living there, as well as continuing to work on the house, I began my garden.  I’d never really had a garden before, just some trees in pots, and a few tomato plants a couple of years earlier.  Like with my house, I figured I’d learn on the job.  I read Jackie French’s gardening books and did whatever she told me.  Slowly, gradually, my garden started to be beautiful.  It also started to produce food.  But I think I didn’t put enough emphasis on fertility, because after the amazing crop the first year, the garden didn’t seem to produce all that much.  It wasn’t until years later when I began studying gardening more seriously (I read John Jeavons’ books and took it from there), that I learnt how to truly grow food.

A House For A Family

A year after I moved in, I met Paula, who became my girlfriend for the next 18.5 years. After three years, I invited her to live with me and share my house. Despite her reservations about the small size, like me, she was seduced by the magic of the place.  There is something special about it, a kind of warmth in the walls (all the salt from my tears?), that makes it feel cosy and homely.  I gave birth to our son Jesse, there, under the kitchen table.  (Ok, we moved the table out of the way for the actual birth!)

When I was pregnant, people kept asking me, “But what are you going to do?” Meaning, what are we going to do about the fact that we live in a tiny cottage and are about to have a baby who won’t fit.  I’d shrug and say we weren’t going to do anything.  Babies don’t take up that much space.  “But what about when he grows?”  That’s the point when I remember that the vast majority of people on our planet live with six people to a house the size of mine, and that most children sleep with their parents until they are fifteen.  It probably wouldn’t do psychological damage to our son if he had to sleep near us.  My plan has always been that once Jesse is truly old enough to need his own space, he could also be old enough to build it. There’s plenty of space in the garden.

For over ten years the three of us slept in the loft.  There was just enough space for a double bed, a single bed, a bathtub, and a tiny bit of footspace in between.  Nothing else.  We had to be diligent about dejunking our stuff, and we couldn’t accept large presents, or choose interesting ornaments and artwork to display.  We had to pack up our stuff every single night or the place became too chaotic to move in.

In recent years, we added another room, with a bedroom on top of it.  That gave us a bit more space. I would never have believed, back when I dreamed of my house, that I would still be there 18 years later.  Unless something dreadful happens, I’ll probably live there until I die, and that would be perfect. [Edit to add: now something dreadful has happened. I’m not living in my house at the moment and I still hope to find a way to go home. I’ll post more details about that later, as I can’t talk about my private life online for the moment due to pending legal nasties.]

My Dream Kitchen

Here’s the kitchen as it looked when I first moved in:

My Dream Kitchen 2

And after a reinvention several years later:

My Dream Kitchen 1

My Dream Kitchen 4 My Dream Kitchen 5 My Dream Kitchen 6 My Dream Kitchen 7

And last, my cutlery collection. When I graduated top of my year from my computer science course, I received a bit of flak for using my prize money to buy something as un-feminist as the cutlery set in the middle of this photo. I have loved and treasured them ever since, and I use them every day – I hope I’ll have them for my whole life. On the left is a very primitive knife and fork I made for Paula just after we met, on a friend’s forge. They’re a bit impractical for use but Paula still can’t believe I actually made them myself, specially for her, so they get pride of place in our kitchen too.

My Dream Kitchen 8

Bertha

Bertha 1

This, my lovely friends, is Bertha, our campervan. She came to us like this, looking rather daggy:

Bertha 2

When we bought her, since we got her a tad cheaper than our budget allowed, I slipped aside some money for her make-over. That’s been a gradual process, especially as I’ve had to convince Paula every step of the way – she was seriously worried that some hippy paint job would make a big dent in the resale value of our van. I reckon, actually, that we might just have increased it. Not that I’m so worried about the resale value – I plan to keep her.

In the two years that we’ve owned her, I’ve constantly mulled over a design for her exterior, but it’s taken this long for the idea to come to me – a kind of classic, retro-inspired look with just a touch of the hippy. Much of it was inspired by kombi vans – I still miss ours, but we really had to sell it when we failed to squeeze three people into the bed, which was really just a bit larger than a single. I have felt a lot of trepidation, however, since handing over the keys to a retired panel-beater, and leaving her in his hands to transform her. And when she came home, I simply couldn’t believe how stunning she looked – wow, every bit as good as I hoped and somehow even better.

Bertha 3 Bertha 4 Bertha 5

Stay tuned.. I’ll post photos of the interior make-over soon, though you may need to wait till we’re on the road to Woodford and have the beds all made up with the patchwork covers I sewed.

Bertha Make Over

Bertha’s Dining Area, After Makeover:

Bertha Make Over 1

Bertha’s Dining Area, After Makeover:

Bertha Make Over 2

Finally I have taken some photos of Bertha, our lovely campervan, so you can see the results of my make over. You can see the external make over here. It’s been a slow process, over the past two years, that I’ve been shifting her away from that hideous beige seventies decor and into something a bit more my taste. Happily it hasn’t cost a lot of money, as it was mostly sewing and painting which Paula and I did ourselves. I’m so pleased with how she looks. For me, interior decor seems to do absolutely everything to enhance my mood. When I stay in a place that delights me, I get joy from looking at and being in my surroundings every day. When I don’t like the aesthetic I find it really hard not to let it seep into my pores – it definitely influences my spirit. Happily Bertha is now a space I like to be in just to enjoy the aesthetic and find inspiration. By the way I would have liked to paint all the exposed fake wood laminate white, but for some reason Paula is resisting. Maybe one day…

The Kitchen Before:

Bertha Make Over 3

And After:

Bertha Make Over 4

Our Bed Before:

Bertha Make Over 5

And after:

Bertha Make Over 6

Our Bedside table before:

Bertha Make Over 7

And After:

Bertha Make Over 8

And a view of the door, from the dining area:

Bertha Make Over 9

And after:

Bertha Make Over 10