Isaac standing in the loft before we added the frames to it

Well, it’s really winter now. We crank up the wood stove almost every day, so we’ve burned the woodpile outside down to nearly nothing and are chopping up the trees we cleared for our building site. The ground is saturated, and our driveway floods with each heavy downpour much like it did when we first arrived last winter. I sleep in socks and dream about when we’ll get the roof on our tiny house.

The past few weeks have been a flurry of framing work on my part as we finished the last few little pieces of the lofts. These frames were small, being only a meter or so high, and I was able to build and raise most of them on my own. Isaac came up for the final piece of the puzzle (video below). It was a small piece of the loft above the boys’ room, which we’ll use as a play space. When we’d raised and secured the frame, we sat looking out the imaginary windows at the valley below and the wilderness beyond. “I think we are going to love this house so much,” I said.

Later we unrolled our 30 meter tape measure and climbed to opposing corners of the structure for a moment of truth: we wanted to know if the frame of our building was square. If our diagonals didn’t match, we’d have a serious task ahead of ourselves to detach some frames and wrench the thing into as close to a rectangle as we could get it. I read off the measurement from one side and we climbed to the other corners. The two diagonals of our rectangular house were exactly the same. Somehow, with no building experience and YouTube as our primary teacher, we had managed to build a structure that was square to the millimetre. I couldn’t believe it. I whooped and jumped in the air like an excited kid.

We had plenty of timber and a little time, so I got excited about turning the wall going up to the play loft into a climbing wall. The kids can either choose to climb the ladder up to the loft, or climb the wall itself. How fun, right?! I cut a ton more studs and put them up and down the wall. We'll do plywood on this section of the wall instead of drywall, and can screw T-nuts into it for climbing holds.

Enough studs to turn this into a climbing wall!

All framed up

The initial design, which we have tweaked a lot as we go

The next day it rained buckets. Since we hadn’t cut the bottoms of the doors out of any of our frames, the whole thing filled up like a shallow swimming pool. I carefully sawed through the bottom plate of each door to let water flow out, and them squeegeed the rest off. The plywood floor hasn’t dried out for a week now nonetheless. We gotta get that roof on. Unfortunately we need some dry weather to do that, and this time of year that’s tricky to come upon. It’s a good reminder that we’re at the mercy of the elements out here.

This past weekend was the Queen’s birthday, which is a national holiday in all the commonwealth countries. There was a market day at the local community club, with stalls selling baked goods and artwork, kids selling their old toys, and adults selling secondhand clothes and housewares. The sun stayed out long enough for us to have a birthday party later in the day for our youngest, who’s now two years old. I officially have a two-year-old and a three-year-old right now – we’re really in the thick of it as parents.

Barefoot biking

Driveway floods are perfect for boogie boarding

I’m not sure at this point if the decision to come here and live this way was one made for myself or for my kids. I often tell people we moved here to give our boys a taste of “Barrier life” – a barefoot, free spirited existence at the beach and in the woods. But sometimes I think it was more of my own dream – to move off-grid and build a house. The longer we live here, the more I fall in love with it for myself. And, sadly, the less I love it for our kids. Living rurally is lonely, especially in winter when people tend to stick to home. There are very few kids on the island – we are almost always the only ones at the beach or the playground, which I’m not used to. The three primary schools on the island each have 30 or so students, split into a lower and an upper class. Seven-year-olds sometimes learn alongside 10-year-olds, and the 12-year-olds are faced with a decision to homeschool or move off-island. This works for a lot of families, but it won’t for ours.

All this is to say that I already know deep down that this island can’t be our forever home. It weighs on me as I continue to build our little house, which we designed as a tiny vacation home but which has become something of a real home for me in these 10 months we have lived here building it. We’ve gotten this land’s dirt under our fingernails, befriended the bugs and birds, memorised the twists in the roads. I don’t want to leave.

Thankfully we won’t for a while. A few years perhaps. We can’t go anywhere until we know where that next place is, after all, and right now we don’t. But we do know we need to put rafters on, then attach sheets of roofing, wrap the building, put in our doors and windows, and cover it with siding. One step at a time, each phase of our project reveals itself, and I learn what I need to in order to get it done. That’s how we’ve gotten this far building our first house, and I guess that’s how we’re living life too, making decisions as the answer is clear. If I’ve learned anything so far it’s that everything seems difficult until you learn how to do it, then it’s easy.

The school year begins in February in New Zealand, so Easter marks the end of the first of four terms and the beginning of a two-week holiday. All those things that had made our life seem so busy recently – bi-weekly Playcentre visits, playgroups, and music classes – stopped. Most of our close friends on the island were either on vacation or sick with Covid, which made these two weeks feel remarkably like our life did when we first moved here and were friendless and in lockdown. To top it off, we ran out of framing timber shortly after Easter and were in a holding pattern again with our building plans. “Where should we go today?” became the question I posed each morning to the kids. “This beach or that beach?”

Bored with our usual haunts, Isaac suggested I take the boys to a beach on the other side of the island that none of us had ever visited. Twenty minutes later I was pulling up in front of a picnic table surrounded by twisted old-growth trees and lapping water that looked like a big chilly swimming pool, all to ourselves. For three hours the boys and I explored this new place, our senses awoken as they always are by something new. My oldest son found a big white shell he wanted me to take home for him, and our youngest found a hole in the sand to hide in. They both stripped off their clothes to splash in the autumn water and roll on the sun-warmed sand. When they were wrapped back up in dry clothes, we carried blankets and towels from the car up into a tree and made a “cozy spot” for them to snuggle up in (their favourite game lately) and they asked me to tell them stories.

It wasn’t Mother’s Day quite yet, but I imagined it was and that this was my celebration – a tantrum-free gorgeous day at the beach with my boys, ages 1 and 3 and as cute as ever. When I imagined motherhood before actually entering it, this idyllic scene was perhaps what I pictured. It was nice to bask in it for a little while.

When it was actually Mother’s Day, both boys woke up way earlier than usual, cutting off our sleep too soon. The house was a chilly 59 degrees, there was laundry to do, rats to empty out from all of our rat traps, and dishes in the sink because we had run out of hot water before finishing them the night before. This is our life, and life for any parent really – equal parts drudgery, exhaustion, and joy.

Our new lot of timber arrived at the end of the school holidays; our pace picked back up again quickly. Isaac handed over drawings for our last two full-height walls, and I jumped on the drop-saw to cut and assemble them. The shape our our house was finally really coming together and I couldn’t wait to finish it. With help from Isaac’s parents, and with our two kids in tow, we raised the last two walls and secured them in place. I could hardly believe I had built nearly all the framing on my own – and that it all fit together! It is dreamlike to walk through the shell of the tiny house we designed.

Timber delivery!

Starting in a few weeks, we’ll make a mad dash to close the house in, which basically means getting the roof and external cladding on, along with doors and windows. We plan to hire help for this part so we can get it done quickly. Most houses on the island are clad in plywood – something I’d never seen much of back in the US. Battens are nailed to the vertical seams between the plywood sheets, with a metal runner along the horizontal seams to keep water out. Roofs in New Zealand are almost all corrugated steel so rain can run easily into water tanks for storage. These styles of building all seems so normal to me now that I have to remind myself that nearly every home back in the states has a shingled roof.

At this point in our move here, there are many things that have become like that – so familiar that I have to remind myself that they seemed odd (or at least remarkable) to me when we first arrived. Like driving on the left side of the road (which is now second nature), or calling peppers “capsicums”, zucchini “courgette”, and arugula “rocket”. We’ve planned a five-week trip back to the US in late July, exactly a year from when we moved away. It’ll be interesting to measure how we’ve changed when we stand in the world of our previous life. Already, I know that coming back to New Zealand at the end of it will almost certainly feel like coming home. We'll have this house, and all the remaining tasks for finishing it, to return to.

Updated: Apr 26

Fall is here and it's time for wetties (wetsuits)

I had forgotten what fall is like. When you move hemispheres, you get two of one season and miss out entirely on another in that first year. And so last year we got one San Francisco spring, and a second spring on the island shortly after arriving. Autumn was a distant memory until this week, when it arrived here with increasingly chilly nights and a week of rain that flooded the valley and filled our water tanks.

We pulled our sweaters out of storage and ordered the kids some more merino clothing, which is surprisingly cheap in New Zealand, perhaps because so much wool is produced here (there's an old joke that there are more sheep in New Zealand than people). I remembered the smell of leaves gathering on the ground and the welcome warmth of a lowered midday sun that won’t give you a wicked sunburn. It’s perfect weather for building, which is fortunate because there’s nothing like the sense of approaching winter to make one want to get the roof on a house.

The kids paying a visit to the work site one afternoon.

We picked up the pace on our building in the past few weeks, striking up a rhythm: Isaac would spend his kid-free hours at the computer drafting up a drawing of the next wall we needed to build, then hand it over to me to cut and assemble. It’s a good system for us because Isaac misses the desk-side engineering work he did professionally, and I am the one whose dream it was to pick up a hammer and build a house. We each get to do what we love. And I’ve nearly framed the entire house all on my own.

My work has hardly been perfect. Last week Isaac came running into our kitchen holding two strips of nail gun nails, a panicked look on his face. “Which of these nails have you been using?” he blurted, explaining that one set had been in a box at the back of our tool rack, the other in a box in front. I’d been grabbing whatever nails I could find when I needed to reload the gun, unaware there was a difference. “I don’t know, I think both kinds” I said honestly, “why?” Isaac put his hand over his forehead and swore, explaining that the darker coloured nails weren’t galvanised steel. They would rust, and eventually break apart. He had seen the box of them half empty on the tool shelf and deduced that I’d likely used several packets in my framing. Crap.

Galvanized versus ungalvanized nails

I shielded our son’s ears while Isaac went outside and swore some more, then came back in and calmly explained, “We’ll have to re-do whatever framing you used these ungalvanized nails on, it’s my fault, I should have marked them more clearly.” Surely, I reasoned, it can’t be that bad. Isaac headed back up to the worksite to take a look at my frames and determine how much needed to be redone, and I put our son down for a nap.

Up to that point, I’d been proud of my work. My first few frames were hardly perfect, with nails poking out from odd corners at places where the nail gun had been hard to yield. But now that I’m onto my 12th frame, my arms are strong enough that I move the eight-pound nail gun around with one arm easily, and I’ve developed a whole system for how I lay out and assemble the frames to get everything as square and perfect as possible. But I had no idea there was a box of the wrong kind of nails among our tools. Turns out I had used them for about a third of my work so far.

Putting bearers in for the back deck.

In the end, we decided it wasn’t as bad as we’d thought. Isaac shot a few galvanised nails into the spots where I’d used the wrong kind, many of which had already started to rust, making them easy to spot. When we consulted Isaac’s dad about it, he shrugged and said “that’s fine, they’ll be covered up as soon as you get the cladding (siding) on.” As the famous Kiwi saying goes, “she’ll be right.” (Which means, basically, “it’ll all be fine.”)

Once these last few frames are done and raised, I’ll miss this part of the project. But as Isaac jokes, “when we’re done with this one, we’ll just have to start another.” And who knows, maybe we will. We designed this tiny house as a vacation home we’d live in for a year here and then use for future visits to the island. At 30 square meters (323 square feet), it’s not a long-term home for a family of four. But neither of us can imagine leaving a year from now, or even two years from now. There is absolutely nowhere we would rather be.

So much progress!

This island has a way of wrapping its arms around you and of pulling you into its wild embrace. Many of the people we have befriended here came for a month or two and just stayed, racking up years here and buying land to build something more permanent. I even found myself talking with a friend whose daughter is the same age as our son about primary schools, of which there are three on the island. The school to the north of us is Maori immersion, being closest to the local Maori community. I imagined our kids learning this obscure but important second language, taught by loving teachers who’ve been with the school for 30 years in some cases. But there is no secondary school here for older kids, which makes many families move off-island when their children reach age 12 or so.

Thankfully all of these decisions are too far off for us to negotiate now. We live best with a six month plan in our pockets, letting life reveal next steps as they come. It’s not for everyone, this lack of certainty about the future, but it works for us. And for now our six month plan is all about building. We want the walls and roof on by the end of June, when bad weather and short days settle in. That all feels just around the corner, and we’re moving as quickly as we can.

I’m also just enjoying each fall day as it comes, getting in the rhythm of stockpiling dry brush under the deck so we can get the wood stove going easily on wet days, and bustling through loads of laundry when it’s sunny. Easter felt a bit like Thanksgiving, being a big holiday here with schools out for two weeks. Isaac’s brother’s family visited and we roasted a big leg of ham to have alongside sweet potatoes and buttery biscuits. The next morning, we pulled the remaining ham and veggies out of the fridge to fry up for breakfast, just as one does with the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the flip-floppiness of holidays in this hemisphere, but I feel at home here now in almost every other way.

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