The Wolgan Valley Tiny House Project

Adding solar panels to the Wolgan tiny house (Ross and Olwyn King)

By Tracie McMahon

Olwyn and Ross King have finished building two tiny houses – their first in the Wolgan Valley, and their second in Portland. So, just what is a tiny house?

Ross, a retired accountant, was working his way through the Weekend Australian Financial Review some five years ago and came across the phenomenon. He passed it to his wife, Olwyn. Ross’ eye was on the investment potential, and Olwyn’s on a new project for her carpentry skills honed through years of renovations and making ukeleles.

Olwyn began with extensive research. She learnt that tiny houses come in many shapes and layouts. A few basic features differentiate them from a house or the type of caravan you pass on a highway. They are constructed on a trailer, but although this makes them moveable, it doesn’t mean they can be registered or readily travel on roads. There are maximum height and weight limits, but there is a diversity of design within these parameters.

Unlike a caravan, waste disposal and water must be fully compliant with the planning rules of the council where the tiny house will be located. They must have an independent power supply installed and certified by an appropriately qualified electrician.

Importantly, a tiny house cannot be a permanent dwelling. It’s a great option for land on which there is already a permanent dwelling or for which there is a DA in place for a permanent dwelling. Think multi-generational living, guest accommodation, or a steppingstone to a larger dwelling. 

The Wolgan tiny house. (Ross and Olwyn King)

Olwyn has family connections to the Wolgan Valley. Her niece and young family live on land which has been in the family for over eighty years. In the 2019-2020 bush fires, Olwyn says she nearly lost those relatives as the fire front advanced on three sides. Thankfully, they all lived to tell a harrowing tale. In retirement, Ross and Olwyn wanted to spend more time in the valley while remaining independent. They also wanted to ensure that anything they built or bought would avoid the threat of fire and  not strain the resources of the valley. So began the Wolgan tiny house project!

The Wolgan tiny house and tank. (Ross and Olwyn King)

Olwyn designed the house to fit on a 24m² trailer friends had given them. Placing the house in a private spot on her niece’s property gives both families independence. They put in a composting toilet and grey water sullage into an onsite absorption trench. They have solar power. Water comes from an attached tank. The tiny house has magnificent views across the valley. Ross and Olwyn say that in the event of fire, the tiny house could be packed up by two people and driven out of the valley in an hour.

Buoyed by the Wolgan tiny house, Olwyn set to designing another in Portland. This one is larger, built on a trailer from a tiny house manufacturer. It will be plumbed into an existing sewer.

Olwyn King (Ross King)

As she built the house, she had plenty of interest from young tradespeople and suppliers she worked with. They know the quality of an Olwyn build. She not only designs the houses, she does the internal fit outs herself.

The Portland tiny house is now completed and available for sale.  The house will be on display at the Lithgow Lifestyle and Business Expo at the Foundations in Portland on 6 and 7 May. Olwyn will also be available to talk about her experience with tiny houses for the aspiring builder or owner.

Portland tiny house. (Ross and Olwyn King)

I ask Olwyn the million-dollar question: “So what does it cost to build a tiny house?” Olwyn estimates that a tiny house might cost around $120,000. The building can be done in as little as a few months.

If they are such a great solution, I wonder why we are not seeing these houses popping up everywhere? For one thing, the demand for houses has outstripped the ability of manufacturers to supply materials. Trailers are near impossible to source. Materials and tradesmen are in short supply.

I ask them how comfortable living in a tiny house really is. It turns out there is more space than they had imagined. Ross can spread out the broadsheets of his newspaper over coffee while Olwyn works on the design for her next tiny house.

Ross King at the kitchen table in the Wolgan tiny house. (Olwyn King)

Olwyn would like to see tiny houses meeting needs from the housing shortage to disaster recovery. Resources to construct one large house for one family, could be diverted to multiple tiny houses to assist many, at least while longer term solutions are considered. Like the Wolgan house, these tiny houses could be homes that are comfortable, practical, sustainable and relocatable.

Some things are clear: life seems to have become riskier. Houses that have been there for generations have been destroyed by climate volatility. Housing is less certain. Olwyn and Ross King’s tiny houses are a creative solution that suits their needs well.

Inside the Portland tiny house. (Ross and Olwyn King)

This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

About Tracie McMahon

Tracie lives, writes and walks on the unceded lands of the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri people. Born in Lithgow, she and her family have spent most of their lives living and working with the people and places of the Lithgow area. Her passions are nature and community, which she pursues through story, art, and volunteering in Lithgow and the Blue Mountains.

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