FOUR years ago Tricia Hogbin and her husband Michael Lloyd were house hunting in Singleton and Broke. The couple were living in Waratah, but Michael’s work was going to take them and their young daughter Olivia up the Hunter Valley.
But in the back of her mind, Hogbin had a different vision for home.
Hogbin has a PhD in conservation biology and spent more than a decade on the coal face of managing threatened species. “I felt a little bit like I was shuffling the deck chairs and wasting my time,” she explains. “To me the work was worthwhile and interesting. But it was not addressing the main cause. We are still clearing the habitat because we are consuming too much.”
Hogbin took her lifestyle changes seriously. She gained a profile with her Little eco footprints blog and Instagram tag, and as a Newcastle Herald columnist, writing every Monday without fail about ways to live a sustainable lifestyle. She covered subjects like growing your own garlic, creating your own “white space” to relax and recharge, the value of ladybugs, the joy of making the perfect porridge with your own oats, and making roadkill kangaroo tail stew.
So Tricia and Michael’s hunt for a home in the Hunter Valley took a detour.
“I saw this ad on a real estate site,” she says from the enclosed verandah of the family’s tiny home 20 minutes from Singleton, with views to the north of Wollemi National Park. “I said this is not what we want. I always wanted to live on the land, but never thought it would happen. It wasn’t practical. I hadn’t thought too deeply about it. It always seemed out of reach.
“But we saw this place. I stepped over the fence and I said to Michael, ‘give it a chance’. And we both fell in love with it instantly.”
The nine-acre block had no water, no electricity and no home. But it held the hopes of a dream.
After living in a shed on the property, and eventually in the principal’s cottage of the nearby village schoolhouse, the family now lives in its recently completed “container” home on the acreage.
“The whole geist of what we have been doing here, and why we been taking it slowly, is we want to minimise risk,” Hogbin says. “We are choosing resilience over risk. I want us to be here for as long as we can be and I don’t want us to go into debt. I don’t want to have to be forced into work while living out here.”
The family renovated and sold their Newcastle property, a two-bedroom cottage they had extended and modernised with a solar hot water system.
They purchased a second-hand container “home” through Gumtree from a company on the Central Coast. It included a roof, and posts and came with lining. Total cost: $13,000 for a six-metre by 2.4-metre dwelling.
They added a verandah, now enclosed, installed a reverse air-conditioner and hot water heater, which both run for minimal time because the small home holds in temperatures.
Their electricity bill is less than $1000 for a year. And they installed a waste water system and hooked up electricity.
Hogbin estimated the cost for project at $100,000 (not including the land).
“If you didn’t look at the infrastructure cost, we would have built this cottage for $40,000,” she says.
“I love living here,” she says. ”Living in a tiny home is enjoyable. You can’t escape each other. We spend a lot of time talking. When we do the dishes, in five minutes, we talk. I can clean the floor in two minutes. I can clean the windows in 10 minutes.”
Often, Olivia rides her horse to school down the road with mum walking beside them.
The chickens have a comfortable pen and the garden is growing bigger all the time. Winter crops included broccoli, beetroot, parsley, celery, kale, broadbeans, cabbage, garlic and silver beet. The young cumquat and mandarin trees are starting to take hold.
Of course, there are inconveniences. Olivia’s bed comes out onto the floor by night and is stored on a shelf by day. Temperatures inside reached 47 degrees in the summer before the air-conditioner was installed. The internet reception is not good, but that’s due to mountain shadows.
“There is a fine line between living in a shipping container or living in a tiny home wisely,” Hogbin says. “I feel very comfortable. I don’t really care what people think so that makes it a little bit easier.”
There is a fine line between living in a shipping container or living in a tiny home wisely. I feel very comfortable. I don’t really care what people think so that makes it a little bit easier.Tricia Hogbin
Hogbin was self-driven from a young age to get a good education and establish a career. And always in a hurry – she talked fast, she walked fast, she would drink two litres of Coke a day when she was studying.
Like so many people, her job was a major part of her identity. But she’s been able to shed that mental baggage.
“For me, it has taken a long time,” she explains. “My daughter is nine now. When she was born, and this is going way back, but I am slow learner. I’ve had lots of health scares along the way. I nearly gave birth to her three months early because I was working so hard and I was so ambitious.
“I was trying to get everything done before she was born and I was out in the field with my colleagues trying to keep up. Thankfully, I was on bedrest for a couple of months and kept her.”
Two years ago her back gave way when she was away on a horseriding trip at Coffs Harbour. She was due to start a new job in Sydney, which she would have been commuting too.
“The message to myself was: you do genuinely need to slow down,” she says.
“You may not feel stress, but our bodies are stressed by the amount of work we do, how much we are rushing around, by not taking time out.
“For me, it’s been about realising I genuinely need to slow down.
“Anxiety is such a huge problem these days. If you look at society as a whole, because people are too busy, they are working to pay off their big houses. Eventually it just comes back. If you don’t deal with the problem, you are taking years off your life.”
Hogbin’s road to a more satisfying existence has had a couple of other major influences. Only two days after she injured her back, Jason Chan, known as the “wandering monk”, showed up at her property and stayed for the three months. “I was forced to slow down, and serve breakfast to a monk every day for three months,” she says. “I’m not Buddhist, but I had time to reflect.”
Hogbin also stopped blogging and writing for publications, instead channelling her thoughts into a personal journal.
“I wanted to find the voice, for me, for myself, so I don’t have to think about the audience so much,” she says. “My writing has been more real and honest.”
She was motivated to take action by a book, The Miracle Morning, by self-empowerment leader Hal Elrod, which expands on the premise that how you start your day largely determines the quality of your day, your work and your life. Hogbin took on a “whole heap of things that can improve our quality of life” including meditation and positive affirmation.
Her journey is far from over; the family has plans to build a small house on the property, with a glass wall on the north-facing side. It will come when they can afford it, and the container home will become a guesthouse for visitors.
“Having a mortgage hanging over your head is one of the main reasons people aren’t living the way they want to,” she says. “You cant take risks because you are trapped by this mortgage. Without a mortgage you are free to make decisions based on what you want to do rather what you have to do.”