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This Auckland couple had big dreams about living small

Joining the ‘tiny house’ movement sent this couple on a DIY journey that led them from London to an idyllic corner of Auckland’s Henderson Valley

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Meet and greet

Jasmine Burt, 30 sustainable business consultant and Erin Allison-Maxwell, abseiling contractor.

This Auckland couple had big dreams about living small

You know what I think about people with tiny houses? Tiny houses = big brains (it’s not a saying yet, but it should be). Owners of tiny homes are canny enough to know that small abodes mean less square footage to tidy, less space for clutter, and far less debt. For Jasmine Burt and Erin Allison-Maxwell, building a tiny house has left them with a manageable financial burden and more freedom to continue travelling the world. How’s that for smart thinking?

How it all started

The couple’s gorgeous cottage, which measures 7.2 metres by 2.4 metres, was devised while they were living overseas. Like many Kiwis on their OE, Erin and Jasmine had started thinking about their future back home and checking out houses online to see what they could buy with their savings. It didn’t make for pretty viewing. The couple had heard of the ‘tiny house’ movement and, after doing some research, found its philosophy spoke to them. Erin had always dreamed of one day building his own home and “something of this scale made it achievable”.

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In 2015, they got to work, sketching out a plan and using a free tool on the internet to make models of how their tiny home might look. Before they even picked up a hammer they got an architect to check the few details they weren’t sure about, to ensure their design was viable.

Nice wheels

Building their home on wheels was a practical choice. Not only did it give them a standard size to work within (to make sure it was towable), it gave them the flexibility to build without a site in mind. This meant Erin could get started on the house before they’d found the section it would eventually live on. From London, they organised a trailer to be custom built back home and ordered the timber.

The build

The week after their return to New Zealand, Erin got stuck in, working part time and spending every other daylight hour hammer in hand, while Jasmine joined in on weekends. “We had grand plans of having it done in four or five months,” says Erin, “but it took exactly a year in the end.” They put the slow process down to a return trip to Europe and their inexperience at building.

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“It was non-stop building during the day and researching how to do the next step at night,” Jasmine says. They were blown away by the attention their build got from craftsmen, who really embraced the project and freely shared knowledge. “It was like the olden days when people helped each other!” laughs Jasmine. “People willingly gave us extra care and showed enthusiasm for what we were doing. That’s put the love into the house.”

Quality over quantity

One of the fundamental philosophies of the ‘tiny house’ movement is that a tiny house must be beautiful – “Otherwise they can look like a Portacom,” says Jasmine. The couple chose a modern cottage aesthetic with generous windows for plenty of natural light. They knew the size of the windows would make a major impact on the final look, and the cost of custom wooden frames was a sacrifice they were willing to make.

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The striking benchtop was another quality-over-cost decision. It’s made from black maire, a little-known native which produces extremely hard, beautiful wood with swirls and knots throughout. The couple sourced the timber from a friendly merchant, Brian at St Lukes Timber, who supplied the same wood for the flooring in Michael Parekowhai’s artwork The Lighthouse on Auckland’s Queens Wharf.

Two for one

Things have to earn their place in this tiny abode by doing double duty. The coffee table pulls apart into two stools, the outdoor table comes inside when there are guests, and the stairs are a clever wardrobe. Where to put stuff is always an issue in a small space but the couple say they have more than enough storage for their belongings.

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The shorter stairs double as cupboards and hidden inside the built-in couches is storage for Erin’s skydiving and paragliding gear, backpacks and their off-season clothes, plus one box for shoes. The linen cupboard is next to the pantry and there’s a secret compartment in the wall above the couch which folds out into a desk. However, the couple find themselves using the breakfast bar as a laptop space instead.

It’s cool to be green

The couple have a rainwater tank and reuse all their grey water, which filters through a bathtub filled with soil before draining into the vege garden.

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They used GreenStuf insulation, avoided using any treated timber and went the extra mile with a composting toilet. “People are freaked out when they hear about it,” says Jasmine. “They think it’s disgusting but it’s not if you do it the right way. Locked away in big barrels, ours comes out as perfect compost.”

The site is all right

It was the couple’s dream to live in the bush “even if all we could afford was a dark hole with no sunlight”. Thankfully it didn’t come to that. A small, overgrown section surrounded by kauri down a dirt road in West Auckland came on the market.

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The bush setting and views of Auckland clinched it for Jasmine and Erin. One day they will build a smallish house “with an epic deck” but for now it’s the ideal spot for their tiny home and burgeoning vege garden.

Giving back

For now, it’s time for a well-earned rest. “I need a year off!” says Erin. “We’re relaxing and enjoying it now it’s finished.” The couple have also written about their house-building journey on a blog (tinyhousebydesign.org). “We experienced such a sharing, giving community during our build so we want to give back by sharing our knowledge,” says Jasmine. “Building your own house is empowering. The magic of tiny houses is being involved in the process so we’d like to give people the tools to build their own.”

Words by: Debbie Harrison. Photography by: Helen Bankers.

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