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What I’ve learned building my own off-grid cabin

My partner and I bought our dream property mid 2020.  We had been watching property in the Sunshine Coast hinterland for a while and when this site came up we jumped at it.  Hindsight tells us we were part of a zeitgeist – the movement of lots of inner city professionals to the country in reaction to the pandemic and a desire to slow down.  Slow down….hmmmm that definitely isn’t what has happened since! 

We took on a 48m2 cabin that was dated (read: ugly), poorly positioned and in desperate need of some love.  The end goal is a 36m2 room that houses 5 beds, a living, dining & kitchen space and a laundry and bathroom in an additional 12m2.  The cabin will be our weekender and we will rent it as a holiday rental to help pay the loan and the significant land rehabilitation this site needs.  At the time of writing, we are about 80% of the way through the cabin renovation and have stalled due to a lack of funds (oh the irony) and have started on the landscaping.  We have koalas in the trees around us and a growing family of kangaroos (evidenced by the fact that everything I plant gets eaten!).  It’s a DIY renovation and all hands on deck at times with family and friends, my brother leading the charge and being our main labourer/project manager/miracle worker.  It has taught me a lot – not about building – but about the process of being the client, of being impatient, of wanting this amazing outcome and at every turn finding a new obstacle or challenge that sets you back. I thought I’d share some of my key thoughts with you!

Spending twice as much as you planned and taking twice as long as you hoped is pretty much a given

Yep, you’d think given I’m trained in design, managing projects and budgets that I wouldn’t make the same mistake as the public.  And I haven’t!  I’ve done it WORSE!  Not only have I undertaken a renovation with one drawing and a few sketches on the walls, I never set a hard budget or made selections in accordance with it.  The cabin is not a house, it’s a dream.  And so when I find that gorgeous red iron concrete basin that is three times what I should spend…of course I buy it!  It’s that difference between the ‘cost’ of something and the ‘investment’ of something.  When you’re building your dream, there is no point cutting corners, going cheap on the things that don’t matter.  You SHOULD be emotionally invested in your build and that’s why having a long term view of the cost and time is important.  It might mean it takes me twice as long to finish this place, but I reckon that’s a cost I’m happy to pay!

Keeping the big picture in mind helps you to not sweat the small stuff

We see this all the time in our work – a client will get caught up on something – a downpipe, a slight change of shade in the concrete, or a skirting board that isn’t what they expected.  And that’s normal.  The thing we spend a lot of time reassuring people about is that those things all disappear when the whole composition of a house comes together.  It’s been fun working on my own project and rolling with the punches.  Rather than sweating when the door arrived swinging the wrong way, we adapted our plan and worked out something better.  The big picture is, I’m finally building my dream home in the rolling hills of Maleny. My guests won’t notice the small crack in the concrete benchtop that I’ve lovingly puttied up!  They will notice the view, the friendship, the quiet and the nights around the bonfire.

Using what you have and working with it creates a unique & authentic outcome

To avoid having too many trades on site, we elected for a single surface for the interior of our cabin.  We’ve lined the whole thing in a birch ply.  Why?  Because there was a heap of it down the road at a really good price!  The fireplace was a leftover from someone’s garage, the cladding wasn’t exactly what we wanted, but was available at a good price at the time we needed it, the benchtops are concrete because we can mix and make these on site ourselves.  This mentality of working with what is available is not only cost effective, it narrows your selections down.  The challenge for lots of clients at the start of a design process is the sheer BREADTH of options.  How do they pick tap colours and get the cladding right and how do they know they’ve made the right decisions?!  Of course, that’s why they’re paying us – to help them narrow down their choices and hopefully land on the right one.  The thing we love to do in every project is dig down until we find the ‘stuff’ that makes each job unique.  You have a 70’s brick home?  Great!  Let’s work with it, not fight it.  Elevate how special (and maintenance free!) those brick are with a lovely adjacent material beside it.  The goal of a great architectural project isn’t perfect, but authentic – and the joy of using materials as cost effectively and sustainably as possible!

The goal of a great architectural project isn’t perfect, but authentic – and the joy of using materials as cost effectively and sustainably as possible!

Our resources are finite and valuable – how we use them matters

I thought I gave a damn when it came to the environment.  And I did.  But nothing has taught me more about how precious our water, energy & soil quality is, than embarking on this adventure.  When you have to consider whether or not to flush both because of the water and power it will consume, you become far more considerate of the cost of your actions.  Not to get all pious on you here, but this has transferred back to life in the city where my power & water are on tap (quite literally) and there are not significant ramifications for over use.  I’m now more conscious of whether or not I need that light on or whether I can put more layers on rather than turn up the heating.  Electrification of our houses to get them off the grid is a really good thing.  Our clients are quitting gas and moving to fully electrified houses and the push towards battery usage is happening more and more.  Perhaps the cost of living pressures will have some impact for good on how we value our resources in the future.

It’s never as good as instagram makes it look

We all know this is true, but I reckon we all need a reminder sometimes!  We post the good days and the milestone moments.  The outdoor bath, socialising around the firepit, relaxing with wine & a great view.  But there are lots of other moments.  Scrubbing mould off ply that we hadn’t sealed before the wettest season in years.  Endlessly catching mice (we should have left the python in the roof…).  The bored kids going crazy in a small space with nothing to do.  The mud. So. Much. Mud.  The half finished jobs that stay half finished because we’ve run out of money or energy or both. The build journey is memorable, but it’s never stress free! However a few days, weeks or months down the track when I’m scrolling through photos, the overwhelm of the moment has passed, and I’m left with a sense of achievement and joy about what we are creating.  You can see progress, what seemed like a disaster at the time is but a faint memory.  There’s a reason building gets under your skin and becomes a bug – its a wonderful thing to take an empty block of land, or a run down house, or just a house that needed its next chapter – and transform that into something special for your yourself and your loved ones.

Lastly, beautiful things are great, but they aren’t the most important thing

At Easter this year we hosted my whole family (there’s a lot of us!) in tents and caravans.  I snuck off early one night before the serious drinking really started and lay in bed listening to my siblings and nieces and nephews laughing and talking. There was about 8 of them tucked into a 4m2 space around a small brazier because it was raining cats and dogs.  Lying there, it was so clear that while the shou-sugi ban cladding is delightful, the doors high spec and the secret fix ply an exercise in perfection, that none of that really matters.  Architecture isn’t about the object on its own, but the relationships and stories it accommodates.  It is about the memories formed in young minds, the importance of place and that feeling of responsibility to a piece of dirt and the way that piece of dirt nurtures you back.  Maybe this links back to my earlier point about the big picture.  For me this is my ‘big picture’.  For you, it might be about something else – but the best projects (and homes) are grounded in something far more than beauty or status or achievement.  I got a message from a client recently who was letting me know how happy they were – how much the pizza oven is being used, the plants are flourishing and their 18 year old son can finally have groups of friends over for parties.  Did she get every single selection perfect in her house? Maybe.  Does it matter? Not much.

Architecture isn’t about the object on its own, but the relationships and stories it accommodates.  It is about the memories formed in young minds, the importance of place and that feeling of responsibility to a piece of dirt and the way that piece of dirt nurtures you back.


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