Find Freedom in a Tiny House

Here is an article of mine published on The Conversation earlier this month. (Photo courtesy of Michael Green.)

Sick to Death of Consumerism? Find Freedom in a Tiny House

What is a house? I feel this is a dangerous question, which holds within it the seeds of a disruptive innovation, so read on at your own risk.

Rethinking what a house is could change your life, and perhaps the world. Let me explain through my own experience.

Voluntary simplicity

When I was an intellectually promiscuous doctoral student my eyes happened to fall upon a copy of Henry Thoreau’s, Walden, a fiery “simple living” manifesto, first published in 1854. This book, like no other before or since, ignited in me a shift in consciousness that I can only describe as an earthquake of the soul.

It shook me awake from a deep slumber, opening my eyes to how consumerist cultures were foolishly celebrating a mistaken idea of freedom, leaving people materially rich but too often empty and twisted inside.

Thoreau’s writings also offered poetic insight in the alternative way of living now known as “voluntary simplicity”, a living strategy that seeks to minimise material needs in order find enrichment and purpose in non-materialistic sources of meaning and satisfaction.

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, advised that “He who knows he has enough is rich”, with Thoreau arguing a similar line that those of us who have enough, but who do not know it, are poor.

The real price of houses

What struck me most about the writings of Henry Thoreau was his penetrating analysis of housing. “Most men appear never to have considered what a house is,” he declared, “and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbours have.” What was he getting at?

Thoreau had seen Native Americans in his town living in tepees of thin cotton cloth, which in the first instance could be constructed in a day or two, and taken down and put up in a few hours; and every family owned one. He compared this to the average house in his neighbourhood, which cost about eight hundred dollars at the time.

Thoreau noted that to earn this sum would take from ten to fifteen years of the labourer’s life; add the farm and one would have to spend twenty, thirty, or forty years toiling – more than half one’s life is easily spent.

Would the Native Americans have been wise to give up their tepees on these terms? It was that question that changed my life. I began doing the maths on a “typical” house in Melbourne and discovered that I would probably have to spend forty years toiling to pay for it, possibly in a job I didn’t always find rewarding.

At the end of such a life, perhaps I would not have had a house so much as the house would have had me. The Native Americans in their tepees would have had cause to pity me.

A backyard house

Was there an alternative way to provide shelter for myself that didn’t make such a heavy demand on my freedom? I put my mind to how to escape the death grip of a mortgage.

I approached my housemates at the time and asked whether they’d mind if I built a shed in the backyard and live in it. They thought I was mad, but didn’t object, and in few days I had built myself a humble abode – for A$573.

I lived in it happily for two years, until the landlord decided to renovate, kicking us all out and forcing me to deconstruct the shed.

While living in a shed may not be the answer to our housing problems, this experience made me realise that a small and simple abode is sufficient for a good life. McMansions cost far more than they come to.

My shed was not much, but it was enough, and just enough is plenty.

In the first week of December I built another “tiny house” (see picture), with a small group of friends. For the last three months I had been salvaging wood from the tip shop, picking up free windows from the side of the road, jumping in and out of skip bins and reclaiming iron that was destined for landfill.

We live in wasteful society, but when I started looking for free or second-hand building materials I was astounded at how easily they were acquired.

Over the course of nine days a group of about ten of us built a “tiny house” for around A$2,500. It has a small footprint, but the mezzanine floor makes the space eminently livable.

Whatever inconvenience might come from living in such a small abode, surely being liberated from 40 years of labour is an abundant reward. If the ten of us had stayed there for a few months we all could have had such an abode, and been enriched by the creative process.

The start of a movement

There is a “tiny house” movement emerging that is taking this “less is more” calculus seriously. By building a tiny house on the back of a trailer it can even be possible to avoid the suffocating expense of land, although there are regulatory barriers that need to be overcome or clarified.

Tiny houses may not be for everyone – I can sense the growing families wanting to interject! – but in an age of extravagance, we could all find liberation in the insight that small is beautiful. Smaller houses would also lighten our ecological footprints, using fewer resources and being easier to heat, due to their modest size.

Imagine being mortgage free after a few months of work. It would help if we had a regulatory framework that explicitly made room for the tiny house movement. Perhaps the greater barrier, however, is the social reluctance to think differently about what a house is. In short, we need more brave pioneers to get the culture shift underway.

With one’s housing requirements so easily met, and having escaped the iron grip of indebtedness, one would then be faced with the exhilarating but terrifying question of what to do with a life of freedom.

7 Responses to “Find Freedom in a Tiny House”

  1. stewart says:

    Perchance I was recently reading Thoreau in the Main Woods and the tragedy of what was happening to America hit me. The Indians didn’t originally need to own the land or buy it. Unyet Polis had been converted to the ways of the whites and had killed moose on mass for profit to buy land. Horrifying. Imagine if we didn’t need to buy land but could be assigned a patch to build a modest dwelling and maybe a food garden. The land would come with a responsibility for stewardship. Returned to the common fund on our deaths and swappable if we wish to move.
    Just a dream.

  2. Monika Andrews says:

    Some years ago I bought some land along one of Victoria’s beautiful rivers as a much needed sea change from a hectic life. I set up a Tipi, built an outside kitchen and grew an abundance of food. The stories which grew out of this experience are an emmensly extravangant slice of life, all be it a simple life. After 7 years of living with the seasonal changes and conversations with the resident wildlife, my daughter wanted to finish her high school years in a suburban school and so we moved to the hills on the outskirts of the city. I bought a 1/4 acre block with an old house but found it difficult to live in a house, so for the past 5 or so years I have occupied a caravan which is tucked away in the garden. My house is filled with friends needing a room and we all share the kitchen and bathroom. Our living space is predominantly outside among the fruit trees and vegies. I built a composting toilet which has made the most beautiful soil over these years and we drink fresh water from the tank, which acts like the communal well. It is a simple life, all be it in the suburbs and whats more my small home feels like a magical cubby without all the seriousness of a proper house. My grandchildren adore it … so I’m all for living simply … it makes for a rich life!

  3. stewart says:

    Thats a great story. So good to hear of people breaking out of the NORMAL template and trying things on their own terms. Very inspiring.

  4. Veronique says:

    Most of us need to live close to where we work and, transport wise, this makes sense. Unfortunately most of us work in or near cities where land is expensive and council regulations and building codes dictate housing options. We don’t just work to pay for housing. The idea of self-sufficiency is challenged the moment we break a leg,need a dentist/ pair of shoes/mode of transport, suffer a bad harvest or catastrophic event.

    In our society we also value privacy over community. Consequently most of us do not consider permanent shared housing which would simplify our lives and cut costs significantly.

    There is also our ‘social image’ to consider. We tend to judge others according to how well they comply with social and cultural norms and this includes personal aspirations, goals and ambitions. Our level of compliance is manifested by our clothing, work, type of housing and the content of our homes. Not complying could result in being ostracized and ridiculed or, at the very least, not taken seriously.

    Of course if we have a strong social network of like-minded people, then living outside mainstream social norms would be easier. And, more importantly, if we lived under a different economic system (including different property laws) this conversation may not even be necessary.

    In the meantime, for many of us it is possible to do useful work, work part-time, limit consumption to the necessities of life and spend our leisure time in meaningful relationships and creative pursuits.

  5. […] Recently I wrote about a ‘tiny house’ build I was involved in (see here). […]

  6. Elaine Baker says:

    Are there any examples of families with children attempting to live in simple and small housing?

  7. Samuel Alexander says:

    Fred from Fred’s Tiny Houses lives with his wife and child in a tiny house. But the point to remember isn’t whether everyone can live in a house this small. I feel the purpose of the tiny house movement is to provoke thought about the question: How much is enough? While a family of 5 might not be able to live on a trailer house, there is likely to be significant room to have a smaller than average house, and that means, less resources (better for planet), less resources (cheaper), and easier to heat (both better for planet and cheaper).

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