Fred and Shannon with baby Olina and their tiny house. Photo: James Braund
Big ideas often have modest beginnings. When Fred Schultz hit 50, he started to ask himself what he wanted. "I began to question whether I would achieve the happiness I wanted in a life filled with work, or was I going to strike out and really savour life?"
As part of Schultz's re-imagining of his life, he decided to build a tiny house. He started drawing up plans for a 10-square-metre home that would allow him to live cheaply and tread lightly on the earth.
He was tapping into what is called the "tiny house" movement, which began in the US and has spread to Australia, as well as the UK and parts of Europe.
"Stuff isn't your friend" is their mantra for tiny-house living. Photo: James Braund
The movement began as a backlash to the McMansions that started appearing in American suburbia in the 1980s and have become symbols of lavish and wasteful lifestyles and environmental inefficiency. The tiny house movement harks back to a time when lives were simpler and more self-sufficient.
The challenges facing Schultz, 56, included the fact that he wasn't a builder, and the uncertainty of not knowing whether plans drawn up on 3D modelling software Sketchup would translate effectively to reality.
And then there was the question of love, and whether wife-to-be Shannon, 31, would live in a tiny home.
The now-married couple, who are both counsellers, met at an alternative lifestyle festival, ConFest. Shannon shared Fred's passion for the underlying philosophy of the tiny house movement but had reservations about the lack of privacy as there would be no internal walls.
She was also less than enthusiastic about using an outhouse. Fred's initial design had no toilet, as he planned for a portable house on wheels that had to be as lightweight as possible.
"I wasn't prepared for that," Shannon says. "We're in Melbourne, it's cold, and I wanted an indoor toilet and shower."
So Fred's design went back to the drawing board. Plans changed again when their daughter Olina was born in November 2014 – suddenly the tiny house would have to expand to fit three. He added safety features such as a balustrade across the loft bed, and a second loft space, which will eventually become Olina's bed.
The dwelling took 18 months to construct with the help of a supportive community of family, friends, builders, carpenters and electricians.
It features a composting toilet, solar panels and a bath which doubles as the sink (if you stand underneath the tap it acts as a "shower").
There's also a lounge area that Shannon calls the "chill space", a kitchen complete with pull-down table, fridge and oven, and a six-seater dining table that is stored in the roof.
It cost $45,000, compared to the median Melbourne house price of over $700,000. The most expensive items in their budget were the solar panels and the battery pack at a cost of $12,000.
The family moved in last October and their home is now parked on a friend's property near Castlemaine, Victoria. There are no utilities, so connection to water is through rainwater tanks, and the Schultzes use ethanol or methylated spirits to light the stove.
Before moving, the family needed to reduce their possessions. "Most people move into a new house and buy new things," says Shannon. "We gave away all our things. My friend got my old desk, others got garbage bags full of clothes and bags. It surprised me that I could give things away easily once I started, and I felt free."
Now she is highly selective about what she displays in the house. "We have one wedding photo, and a little print of Olina's hands and feet."
The conundrum of storage takes on a new dimension in a tiny house. Shannon has organised their few belongings with military precision. There are kitchen shelves under the ladder, boxes under the sofa, hooks on the walls, and the spare loft. Everything has its place. Clutter is ruthlessly kept at bay. Their mantra? "Stuff isn't your friend."
Tiny house living has emotional challenges, along with the practical.
"If one of us is grumpy, it takes up the whole house," says Shannon.
Fred adds, "You don't have the insulation of a huge house where you can go off and ruminate."
Shannon says the small space has forced them to be skilled at taking the temperature of one another's moods, and dealing quickly with any flare-ups. Says Shannon, "Here, we just check in with each other a lot more: 'How are we going? Something went bump with you there, I can tell. Are you stressed? Are you angry with me?' We've developed more of a language, we talk about it instead of letting it simmer."
The couple say tiny house living has brought the family together in ways they couldn't have imagined.
"In a bigger house, when Fred was working, he could disappear into another room," Shannon says. "Here, Olina has access to him all the time."
"It's helped my relationship with Olina magnificently," agrees Fred. "She's more bonded to me than before. She's just here, and it's such a joy to be in her life in such an immediate way."
Not being bound to a mortgage has given Fred more time with his family, and the chance to pursue his passion. He has started a tiny-house consulting and building business.
Living in a tiny house means he's achieved his goals of "reducing costs and being the captain of your own ship".
"I'm so delighted and a bit amazed that it all works," Fred says. "I spent so long on it and had so many versions of the house but I'm happy with the final one. It's really worked out for us."
Shannon agrees. "It's the first time we've lived off the grid, so that stress combines with lots of big changes in our lives. But I feel positive and grateful.
"We had satay chicken with vegies and mashed potatoes last night, watched TV on the internet, and had a hot shower in the morning. We're happy making bread and watching Olina grow and take her first steps. I'm living the dream and it's working."
MANIFESTO FOR TINY HOUSE LIVING
- Clean up as you go: good chef, clean chef.
- Too many cooks crowd the kitchen and make it unsafe.
- Cleaning a composting toilet is like changing nappies, on a slightly larger scale.
- Shop mindfully: choose the one item that really fits the purpose.
- Small gifts are beautiful (think of things such as gold earrings, not coffee machines or food processors).
- Listen more to each other and speak less.