This piece first appeared online in The Fifth Estate, 7 February 2017
Alexander Symes and Joanne Jakovich from Big World Homes have spent years developing the prototype of their flat-packed sustainable home, which launched last September in Sydney. At the small scale, they say it’s “a transitional housing product that aims to bridge the gap between renting and owning”. At the large scale it could be “one of the most progressive, socially oriented, community-driven housing projects Australia has ever seen”.
Whichever it is, I’ve long had a fascination with the tiny home movement and was happy to provide funding through their Chuffed campaign to help get this project started (although, to be clear, I have no financial interest in the Big World Homes business; I just admire what they’re doing). After reading dozens of books on small living, tiny homes, micro-green and nano-houses, it’s great to see reality coming to life.
So when the chance arose, early this year, to stay in the prototype home in its leafy Sydney suburb resting place of Leichardt, I jumped. Three days / two nights in the first Big World Home would give me an opportunity to put the place through its paces, experience the ‘small living / big life’ feeling, and provide feedback to inform the next version.
Oh, and just to liven things up (and since January is school holidays) I took my sons with me – Ed (Edward, then aged 7¾) and Jet (James, then aged 6¼). Let’s see how this 13.75 square metre flat-pack home copes with a sustainability wonk and two energetic children! Here are the five things that I learned:
1. The less stuff you have, the less there is to clutter the place up or put away
This might be obvious, but I could never have squeezed all the ‘stuff’ from my apartment into this home. That’s not the idea. This is not the home for people with lots of shoes, dozens of suits or a collection of vintage typewriters. This is, however, the perfect place for people with simple wardrobes and unpretentious furnishings, and for those who tend to put something away (toys, books, clothes) before they get the next thing out. I spent years living above a single car garage in Paddington, and they were wonderfully economical years because I didn’t have much room to put ‘stuff’ and so didn’t buy much. This home has one big wall with shelves and hangers onto which I could have squeezed my book collection, plants in pots, simple clothes, and toys for my sons, and that was enough.
2. Good design is everything
I’ve experienced roomy 50m2 apartments and cramped 100m2 units; it felt like Big World Homes have made an incredible effort to marry beauty, functionality, flexibility and style. The walls and shelving system look beautiful, and allow for display of plants, pictures or books, but are flexible according to occupants’ needs. As always with small areas, lighting is key; windows allow lots of daylight in, light-coloured interiors make it feel spacious, and ceiling LEDs allow for pools of light where needed. It takes two people working with a drill and a mallet a weekend to assemble the 39 structural-thermal-waterproof integrated panels, and since each panel weighs only 15kg it is lightweight and safe to handle; there’s just a few screws to fix into pre-drilled holes. The engineered polycarbonate exterior conceals a good, thick layer of insulation, with the plywood interior structure providing the great look and feel of wood. Or in technical terms, the walls and ceiling are made from 10mm fluted polycarbonate Danpalon sheet, 9mm vented air gap, 40mm high-density Polyisocyanurate Insulation that’s silver-backed on both sides, and 9mm Hoop Pine plywood sheet internal finish which altogether achieves an R rating of 2.0. Got it?
3. Small really is sustainable
So not only is this home made from the minimum of materials, but the roof is covered with 1.5kW of photovoltaic panels which feed the batteries beneath the home. The complex-looking but surprisingly simple ‘power panel’ converts the stored energy into a useable form for appliances, lights and pumps. Since this is uncovered, I could explain to the boys how this worked, and they found this logical rather than bewildering. The gutters around the sloping roof capture rainfall, and the prototype 1,400 litre underfloor water tank is large enough to provide a week or two of water-conscious washing up, showers, toilet flushing and laundry, and can be topped up or resized to suit your usage. The composting toilet is simple, and the shower cubicle big enough for my six foot one inch frame, with small gas cylinders feeding the hot water and stovetop systems. So, all in all, it should be possible to live pretty much off-grid. There’s one door at the ‘back’ and one along the side, onto which veranda areas can be built, so airflow was excellent as soon as there was any wind. The daytimes were warm, and the unit came to be as warm as the air, but an evening breeze and a single fan helped cool us.
4. We need to manage our expectations about where we live
At a starting price of $80,000, Big World Homes are a great entry point in the market. If you can find the right location, this would be a good way to get your foot onto the ladder, and the sustainability features I’ve outlined will help keep running costs and utility bills at a minimum while you save. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to want a huge house in a fashionable suburb on a single salary, but it’s not out of reach to locate a Big World Home in the right place and work from there. Less is, after all, more affordable. Maybe it’s time to examine traditional housing finance models too?
5. Lego still hurts when you step on it in the dark in a tiny home – so step outside more
Going back to my original point, putting things away is vital. What made this experience so amazing was the chance to ‘discover a new suburb’, and the great playgrounds, parks, cafes and restaurants around Leichardt. Once you realise that your back garden can be enormous depending on where you’ve located, suddenly interior space starts to feel less important. There’s so much more to do out there once we step (carefully) outside.
So, the big question: would I live here? Well, I can imagine using this as a stepping stone from renting to owning, having this as a granny flat or teenager retreat at the bottom of the garden, placing this on a hillside somewhere as a holiday cabin, or as medium-term emergency accommodation. I know this would have suited me just fine at periods through my twenties and thirties, but maybe not full-time with two kids. This does, however, offer a great, sustainable, affordable, comfortable solution for many different people at different times in their lives, so I’m hoping Big World Homes really will provide that ‘missing link’ in the housing market. We had fun, we learnt a lot; a great experience.
Robin Mellon is one of Australia’s experts on sustainability in the built environment and is determined to leave the planet in a better shape than it was when he found it. Robin believes in a Better Sydney – better buildings, better communities and a better quality of life.