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Living tiny: A family shares their tiny house adventure

Can families live in tiny houses without driving each other mad? Carole Payton talks to a mum who lives in a 15 square-metre home with her family of four to find out what it’s really like to live tiny.

The popularity of ‘tiny houses’ keeps growing. All over social media teeny palaces of perfect proportions are popping up for us to be amazed at. Jess Ellis lives in one such house with her partner Nic and two children. I wanted to know what it’s like – the challenges and opportunities and everything in between.

A side note: It’s important to note that building and living tiny is not without privilege. There is plenty of time and cost involved and our interviewee would like to acknowledge the financial and physical support offered by friends and family while they undertook this endeavour.

It seems sometimes like a bedroom for each child is fast becoming the norm. What made you decide to move your family into a tiny house instead?

We have never believed that having separate bedrooms is a necessity. My girls still have their own space, but it’s a family space where we keep their belongings, as well as our own. We as a family have to work together to share the space. They still get the same experiences but they do it more communally.

Jess’ tiny house

Have you thought about space for the girls when they’re older?

We have. We will build a second structure that will act as our bedroom. The girls will share our loft and the communal area will remain just that.

Talk to me about layout – where do you put everyone?

The whole house is 15sqm, with two upstairs lofts – one fits a super king mattress and the other is a single for Nic’s older daughter, who spends the occasional night with us. The younger girls have two bunks in the wall opposite the kitchen area which each fit a cot mattress. Often I can hold a tiny hand and hush while doing dishes! The bathroom is the only part that can be closed off and is 2.2m by 1m. We have a shower over a shub and a composting toilet, a small sink and washing machine all packed in there. The kitchen, dining and living are all one room with storage under the couch and a TV on the wall. We’ve recently built a deck with cover that comes off the front that provides some more storage and space.

Was it expensive? I know Nic went straight from finishing his degree in architecture to starting the tiny house build and you were working part time as a teacher. How did you manage to build a house, albeit a tiny one?

The only reason we were able to do this is because of our parents. We went back to our family homes in Blenheim and our parents supported us while we built. It cost us roughly $27,000 in total to build. To make this happen, we salvaged a lot. Nic helped on a demo in Christchurch post-quake, offering free labour in exchange for materials. We became experts at dumpster diving and navigating TradeMe.

Lillian (3) and Violet (13 months) playing on the deck

What aspects of parenting do you find you’ve had to amend due to the smaller space?

It would be fair to say that we have a rather alternative focus when it comes to parenting, and a lot of those communal, attachment style methods were easily transferred to a smaller space. Probably one of the more obvious changes has been since we’ve had Violet. She requires quiet to go to sleep so being in the small space we have to be aware of what works for her. We tend to spend a lot of time outside, which is something that is important us anyway, but having the tiny house has increased the need for this.

As parents, we are always building our child’s moral compass. What is the main value you’d like your children to take away from this experience?

That we don’t need material possessions to lead a fulfilling life. We are both environmentally conscious and as parents we are aware of how our world population has such a huge impact on our earth and its resources. We wanted to show that you can have children and a family life without having to hugely increase your impact on the environment. We also really wanted to model and promote the idea that our family is a team. As cliché as it sounds, as long as we have each other, everything will always be OK.

And lastly, what is the best and what is the most challenging aspect of parenting in a tiny house?

The best is the relationship I have with my girls because I’m always right there. I’ve got way more time to spend with them, I’ve got freedom to do what I want to do but they’re right there. Another bonus: I hate chores. I’m not a fan at all. I have much less cleaning to do because I live in a tiny house. I can vacuum my whole house in three minutes!

The worst is that we’re always together. Ha! I don’t necessarily think this is a tiny house thing but it’s certainly magnified in a tiny space.

The thing is, if you are passionate enough about something, you make it work. Living tiny has been a dream of ours for so long that we just create a life that fits it. It isn’t without its ups and downs but we wouldn’t live any other way.

Carole Payton is a blogger and social worker from Feilding, New Zealand. She has 2.5 children and a talent for making jam and drinking gin.

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