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Tiny Home – A Little For A Lot

A preloved vintage caravan forms the backbone of Jess’ tiny home.

For a yoga teacher with a passion for permaculture, building a tiny home from recycled materials became the perfect way to connect with her family and community.

Thirty-one-year-old Jess Hay grew up near Townsville, Queensland, with a large vegetable patch, free-range chickens and plenty of homegrown tropical fruits. But it wasn’t until she spent time living abroad at the end of high school that she became interested in permaculture.

‘I was living in the south of France 12 years ago with a retired couple who had created a permaculture food forest,’ explains Jess. ‘There were 10 or so houses that specialised in growing different foods and they all bartered with each other to sustain themselves. It was very inspiring.’

Eight years later, when her parents moved back to her father’s hometown on Magnetic Island, Jess began to see how she too could live a permaculture-inspired lifestyle. She just had to think small to get big results.

The Design

After years spent daydreaming about living a simpler lifestyle in a tiny home, Jess decided to talk to her parents about the possibility of putting a small vintage caravan on their Magnetic Island property. But her dad Morrie, who had built their home on the island, had other ideas.

‘The plans quickly evolved from having a small caravan to building a tiny home,’ Jess says. ‘We sketched out the entire plan over a couple of hours. He made suggestions based on his building experience, and I changed them to suit my permaculture knowledge and goals.’

Jess’ final design features a vintage 16-foot caravan as her bedroom, parked alongside a raised deck and living room/kitchen. Because the built structure is so small, there was no need to apply for council permission. The positioning of the home and its features were dictated by Jess’ garden design and the resources she hoped to utilise, like rainwater, sunlight and shade.


Working With Rainfall

Initially wanting to capture and store rainwater for use in her home and garden, Jess spoke to locals on the island with rainwater tanks. ‘They essentially said it wasn’t worth it because rainfall in the area is so low,’ says Jess. ‘But when we do get rain, those tropical storms bring it down hard and fast, and the rain feels like it’s coming in sideways.’ So, Jess figured out a different way to utilise the island’s annual rainfall.

By setting the roof pitch at a seven-degree angle, rainfall can easily be diverted to Jess’ rainforest garden, which grows beside and around her deck, cooling the entire home. The roof was made large enough to cover the caravan, and the deck and kitchen quarters, providing extra insulation and weather protection.

Avoiding guttering was a deliberate decision. “We have some established gums and natives around, and plenty of wildlife and cockatoos, so leaf litter would have quickly clogged gutters,” Jess says. “Gutters can also struggle with heavy tropical downpours and be high-maintenance.” Instead, Jess and her dad created a large roof overhang of approximately 60 centimetres, keeping water away from windows and off the home, even in severe storms.

By positioning her deck with a northeast aspect, Jess receives morning light and warmth to practise her yoga but is relatively shaded by her garden for the rest of the day.

The placement of her kitchen allows greywater to run directly to her banana circle, passively watering the plants. An irrigation system and plenty of free mulch from the island’s waste depot keep her garden water efficient.

She didn’t bother building a bathroom or laundry into her tiny home and instead uses the nearby ensuite in a small shack on the property — the original home her parents lived in when building their new house. She does, however, have plans to eventually add a gas-heated outdoor shower. When it happens, the showerhead will be connected to a tree, and smooth rounded stones collected from the beach will be concreted into the floor.

The Materials

Building a home with new materials is expensive and resource-intensive, and when building on an island, the cost increases dramatically. Jess’ dad bought over secondhand resources on the island’s car ferry one ute-load at a time to keep his own house affordable and sustainable. For her tiny home, Jess decided to seek out materials that already existed on the island first. The hard-rubbish collection of kerbside waste proved fruitful.

‘I found so many useful things in the lead-up to the council’s hard-rubbish collection,’ Jess says. ‘I got the insulation for my caravan, my roof and all the wood we needed including blue gum floorboards. The locals went through each other’s rubbish looking for treasures, and I’m pretty sure most of the hard rubbish just got moved from house to house instead of going to landfill, which is great.’

In the end, her foraging provided enough thick styrofoam to insulate her caravan and floorboards from an old church became her kitchen/living-room floor. Excess blue gum floorboards from a new build on the island were utilised for her decking, old iron roofing was sealed and used for her roof and a discarded sink was installed in the kitchen.

The stained-glass windows above her kitchen sink originally came from a house in Townsville that Jess lived near. New owners of the old Queenslander didn’t like the stained glass that ran along the length of the home and decided to replace them with sliding glass windows. Jess alerted her dad to the opportunity.

‘My dad was still building his house on the island, so he purchased the windows to use there,’ Jess says. ‘He didn’t end up needing all of them, so I was lucky enough to use the spare windows.’ The windows are now one of Jess’ favourite features and have the added bonus of keeping her home’s aesthetic in sync with her parents’ house.


Clockwise from top: A decked raised to meet the height of the van’s door forms the open living area; Jess and her dad Morrie have become closer since the build; Her tropical garden plays an important role in cooling her home; The vintage stained-glass window references her parents’ nearby home.

Prioritising Power

What wasn’t acquired directly on the island was slowly and purposefully sourced on the mainland, including secondhand fibro boards to use as her kitchen walls, new plywood for her caravan walls and a small 320 W solar system with two secondhand deep-cycle batteries. The solar-charged battery system provides Jess with enough 12-volt power to keep her small fridge cool, power her lights and charge USB devices like her phone and kindle. Her laptop needs to be charged at her parents’ house, but Jess is considering upgrading to a 40-volt system in the future.

Heat Management

Summers on Magnetic Island can be uncomfortably hot, but with thoughtful design and the help of a lush permaculture garden, Jess’ tiny home stays cool even on the hottest days.

‘I’ll visit my parents’ house in summer, and we can’t sit on the front deck because it’s too hot,’ she says. ‘But my tiny home stays cool, and I spend lots of time on my deck year-round. It’s my favourite place to be.’

The food forest is now well established and helps to shade her home, and her recent addition of a rainforest garden by the deck creates an oasis-like microclimate.

The previous owners of the caravan had installed a new air conditioner, but Jess hasn’t needed to use it.

‘I tried using it one night, but it was noisy, I couldn’t hear the birds, and it just didn’t feel right to sleep with all the windows shut,’ Jess says. ‘The house is a street back from the beach, so we get an ocean breeze, and the rainforest garden cools things down. I’ve been surprised at how cool the house stays.’

And in winter, Jess simply wears an oversized fleece jumper to stay warm.

‘The winters are so mild and short that they’re a bit of a joke,’ she says. ‘So, heating isn’t really required.’


Communities Build Homes

The tiny home ended up taking about a year to build because Jess and her dad both worked fulltime. Initially worried the slow process would be frustrating, Jess ultimately found it rewarding.

‘The best part about the build was bonding with my dad,’ Jess says. Together, they did all of the construction, with a few friends pitching in to help with other tasks.

But the other highlight of Jess’ build was the opportunity to connect with her community. ‘A lady who lived on the island snuck in and left all these beautiful books and textbooks about design and permaculture on my verandah because she thought I would benefit from them,’ Jess says. ‘When I bought my silky oak dressing table from Gumtree, I was accidentally reunited with someone from my old school. We now go hiking together regularly. And there’s a lady who runs a Thai restaurant on the island who I give homegrown Asian herbs and vegetables to, and in exchange, she often drops by beautiful Thai food for me. It’s a very tight-knit community here, and by building a home and growing food to share with my community, my relationship with those people has become even more special.

‘There’s such a stigma in our culture about living with your parents, but intergenerational living can be such a beautiful thing,’ says Jess. ‘My brother and his wife also live on the island, and my sister regularly visits, staying in the small shack near my tiny home. It’s really special to have so much authentic time together but to each have our own spaces.’

By living small, Jess says she also has more time to enjoy her hobbies like pottery, hiking and gardening. The entire house takes 15 minutes to clean, and she feels calmer living with fewer possessions that are both meaningful and purposeful. She’s also been able to save more money by living small and has plans to build a second tiny home in Townsville, where she spends a few nights each week when working on the mainland.

‘For a while, I thought having a tiny home was crazier than having a half a million dollar loan for a house,’ continues Jess. ‘I now look at it and realise where the absurdity lies, though I know my situation is different to many other people’s; I don’t have children, and I’m extremely grateful to have a beautiful relationship with my parents. Not everyone can do what I’ve done, but I’m glad I had the courage to follow my desires and take a different approach. I hope other people who feel inspired by this way of life can do so, too.’


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