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A "summer" day at the beach here this January

January brought the worst weather-related disaster in New Zealand’s history to the North Island. Rain bucketed down for weeks, dropping multiple times the typical monthly rainfall in just a few days in some places. The storms flooded towns and homes and caused landslides and slips all over the country. Our little island wasn’t spared, though the natural landscape around us drained most of the water away with little damage to buildings. Crews were out clearing rocks and mud off the roads where slips had blocked things, and we were able to go eel fishing off the edge of our driveway when the creek swelled above its banks for a week.

This is typically the time of year when water tanks are running low. In January last year we had run out of water and were pumping up regularly from the creek at the bottom of the hill. But now, our backup tank is full and our main rain-water collection tank is overflowing. To take advantage of the weather, and in an attempt to prevent erosion on our clay banks, we spent the beginning of January spreading topsoil and grass seed across a patch of our site. Within a week, the hillside was bright green, and we dreamed of a time in the future when the grass would spread to the rest of our muddy lot. In the places where we hadn’t planted grass, the clay soil grew a slick of algae like a creek. It’s been that wet.

Our driveway

Eel fishing with a stick and a hook beside our driveway

Our kids were elated to catch one!

Besides the full tanks and green grass, there’s nothing to love about the weather we have had all summer. “We haven’t gotten a summer yet,” someone said to me at the local cafe the other day, to which I agreed. Our visitors over Christmas and New Years spent most of their holiday indoors playing card games and stoking up the wood stove to get hot water. We were thankful to have our own space, camping up in the unfinished house, especially when two different flus made their way through the crew who was visiting. We eventually got both bugs, with the kids sick back to back, and myself sick with a fever and then a stomach flu for a week. And that’s how I found myself curled up on the kids’ old crib mattress on the floor of our unfinished house clutching an empty paint bucket in the middle of the night, wondering why on earth we’ve chosen to live this way.

Bucket baths in the rain beside our muddy patch of grass

It was a low moment, and when you’re sick and living without an indoor bathroom those are easy to end up in. As I lay there, I heard a scrabbling sound in the box where we kept dry goods in our makeshift kitchen, just a few feet from where I lay. A rat, I thought. Too sick to do anything, I called to Isaac, who was sleeping on the floor of the kids’ room nearby. “Isaac, wake up, a rat!” I called. He roused himself and stumbled into the kitchen where the commotion was. He kicked the box of dry goods and the rat bee-lined for the back door beside where I lay. It must have come in there earlier in the evening when I had the door open to cool the house off. Finding his escape-route blocked, the rat turned and zipped into the other side of the house, to the master bedroom which was filled with building materials and tools and a million places to hide. Crap.

“Get the trap,” I said to isaac, “it’s outside by the compost pile.” Within a few minutes, Isaac was setting the trap with peanut butter beside the door to the tools room. We went back to bed. Fifteen minutes later, an unmistakable “snap!” woke us up. “Got it,” Isaac announced as he carried the trap and victim out to the back deck. I tossed and turned in a sleepless haze of sickness for the rest of the night, and heard scratching and banging on the other side of the wall where Isaac had put the trap outside.

In the morning I sent the kids out to check the rat trap, and Jude came in to tell me the rat we’d caught was still moving. The trap hadn’t killed it, and I'd been hearing his struggles all night. Isaac picked up the sledgehammer and headed out to the garden to finish the job. When I heard a bang and a shriek later, I asked what had happened. “The brains splattered all over my leg,” Isaac said. I covered my eyes with my hands and mumbled, “I can’t believe this is our life right now.” I was over it.

When I’d turned the corner on the stomach flu, I sat out on the deck and told Isaac the truth – I had run out of energy for this house project. It felt never-ending and we still have so much to do. I wanted to live somewhere else. Somewhere with places to go and things for the kids to go do when the weather was foul. I was desperately wanting modern conveniences like a dishwasher and a flushing toilet. And most of all, I was lonely and needed a community, which is something I haven’t quite found yet here. The grass seemed greener somewhere more populated, and I dreamed longingly of that place.

But the truth is, the grass is green where you water it. And for now, this is our spot. Isaac and I made a plan to move down to the old house now that the holiday visitors had all trickled back to their lives on the mainland or overseas, and we would plow some more savings into the tiny house to get help with finishing it.

And so we trundled the kids bunks and our few boxes of clothes back down to Isaac’s childhood home, our camping adventure in the tiny house now over. Sleeping on a real king-sized bed again after a month on mats and crib mattresses on the floor felt divine. A crew came last week and finished the drywall up in our tiny house. This week, someone is up doing the sanding and plastering, and next week Isaac’s best childhood friend is going to paint the interior for us. We’ve got to get the wood flooring down and finish the electrical, and then we’re pretty much there. Our kitchen cabinets came flat-packed in our container from the US, so those just need to be assembled and put in place for us to have a kitchen. We figured we’ll chip away at the bathroom and the endless outdoor projects over time, given that our outside toilet and shower will suffice until winter.

Drywall is done!

Looking out on another rainy day

All said and done, we hope to be living in the place, with furniture and real beds, by end of February. When we moved here, we thought we’d knock the project out in six months. A year and a half later, here we are. That's life!

Today the sun came out and the winds switched direction for the first time in a month. The flooded creeks are back to normal, and it feels, finally, like summer. The vitamin D has lifted my mood and whisked away the smell of mildew that permeated everything. The beach is calling, and we plan to go camping in a few days at our favourite spot with a few families we love here – turns our we do have a little community after all. We know someday we’ll move from here, likely to a small city with all the bells and whistles I miss. But for now, we’ll keep watering our green green grass and marvelling as it grows.

“All I want for Christmas is to spend it up in our new tiny house,” I said to Isaac not too long ago. It was late at night after a ten-hour day installing insulation and drywall. Despite working seven days a week, eight hours during the day and two more after dinner, to get the place into a liveable state before a busy Christmas season, it didn’t look likely. Too many setbacks, both within and out of our control, had pushed our goal out of reach.

I could write a whole post about all the mistakes we’ve made along the way, but suffice it to say we made a few. Each added up to a lost day here and a wasted afternoon there, which pushed out the window of time in which we needed our plumber and electrician to come. A huge mistake in ordering the wrong thickness of insulation cost us days of extra work, and by the time we were ready for a builder friend to come help with the drywall insulation, it was nearly Christmas. Everyone was shutting things down and heading off on sailing trips or to visit family on the mainland. We’d missed the window of opportunity to get these crucial extra hands on the job, and now would have to wait until the end of January, when the summer holidays end and work picks back up here in New Zealand.

None of this would have been much to write home about, except that Isaac’s family is large and his five brothers all love to come home to the island for Christmas, bringing girlfriends and kids and dogs and surfboards with them. I knew it was time for us to vacate the old family home of theirs we’d been living in and give the space over to the relatives for the holiday. Plus, the prospect of sharing a one-bathroom home with ten additional family members was stressful for me, what with our two toddlers and all. Hence the rush to get our tiny house done so we could escape to it for the holiday.

Above: the state of things just weeks before we hoped to be moving in.

Below: finished drywall along the lower part of the walls, thanks to some long days of work.

A week before everyone was set to arrive, I was a mess of anxiety and had hit a wall. We needed to make a plan. Our plumber had been tied up at other jobs for weeks now (there are two plumbers on the island, and endless demands on their time), which meant no hot water or gas in the tiny house. But we had a hose and a tank of rain water, which seemed like enough for us. We didn’t have electrical outlets and lights hooked up, but we did have a solar power system we could run extension cords from. If we could set up our camp stove and put together a quick outdoor toilet system, we’d be set. “It’ll be like camping,” Isaac said, “with a really good view and a roof over our heads.” As long as we could make the interior of the house safe for kids (no live wires, no insulation hanging out, no dust), we’d move up for the holiday season.

We ordered ourselves a two-burner camp stove and a “boom bucket” for our toilet, and re-set our expectations. Once I wrapped my imagination around the idea that we’d be camping for Christmas, I got really excited about the idea. It would be one our kids (and we) would remember forever. And most of all, we’d have our own space.

Isaac watched YouTube videos on how to put in drywall, then worked nonstop to get the lower walls of the house covered in it, finishing on the summer solstice. We spent the next day trundling our fridge, kids beds and dresser, and boxes of dishes and food up the gravel driveway to the work site where our house stood. By evening we were set up and the kids were bouncing in their bunk beds, overjoyed at getting to sleep in this structure they had watched us build for the past year. “We did it,” Isaac said as we fell onto our camping mats on the floor, utterly exhausted, that night.

Cleaning up after sunset in order to get ready to move in the next day.

Moving our fridge up to the tiny house – the biggest thing we moved.

All set up in our unfinished house.

Doing dishes in buckets on the deck.

The day before Christmas Eve, we cut down a pine tree and decorated it (actually, three pine trees strapped together because they are so spindly!). I hung our stockings and let the kids dig into a tin of Christmas cookies. It was feeling festive, and we were all really happy. Besides a few hours spent cleaning up construction debris around the site, it was the first time in nearly a month that we had taken a break as a family and just relaxed together.

Then, on Christmas Eve we got a very special surprise – our plumber showed up in his truck, ready to work as long as it took to get our hot water and gas hooked up. Isaac put on his work boots to help, and the two of them worked 13 hours with short breaks for coffee. I dressed the boys and headed down for drinks and dinner with the rest of the family, urging Isaac and the plumber to come join us. They kept working. It was dark and the kids were fast asleep dreaming about Santa when the guys finally finished, dusty and drained. We couldn’t have been more grateful as we received the best Christmas gift we could have asked for – hot water and a gas stove hook-up. Isaac ended his day by taking a hot shower outside under the stars and we sent the plumber off with hugs and a sandwich made from leftovers.

Our outdoor shower – not having hot water sure makes you appreciate it.

Our camping Christmas, in the end, was magical. Santa managed to find us up here, much to the kids delight, and my anxieties about living in such an unfinished house proved unfounded once we got up here. Even before we got the gift of hot water, we had everything we needed – cozy spots to sit on the floor and read Christmas books with the kids, a dry place to cuddle up and sleep all together in one room, a glowing Christmas tree, and shelves of delicious food. Our kids have been so happy since we came up to the unfinished house, spending the days playing on the floor and running around the deck. They love the small space and being close to us all the time.

As obsessed with presents kids can be during the holidays, they also remind us what Christmas is really about – being together, having fun, and making the most of what you’ve got. As expected, this will be one we’ll remember forever.

Below: Our progress over the past year, from January at the top to December at the bottom.

A few times a week we have a babysitter come and look after the kids for a few hours so Isaac and I can work together on the house. We rack up a list of two-person jobs to conquer during these precious chunks of time, working as efficiently as possible. Last week the most exciting item on that list was taking down the scaffolding that has surrounded the house for several months while we finished the exterior. We had finished securing the fascia and soffit boards to the edges of the roof, and we’d framed the plywood seams of the exterior with batten boards – we were ready to see what this thing looked like without a big wooden frame around it.

Within a few hours the scaffold was down and we had stacked the wood neatly under the deck for other projects (I’m overjoyed at how much wood we have!). We stood back and looked at this house we had designed a year and a half ago at our dining room table in San Francisco. “Does it look like you imagined?” Isaac asked. “Exactly,” I said.

In fact, it looks better than I could have imagined, knowing all the sweat that we have put into it and al the moments when I wondered how on earth we would make this thing happen. It’s been 14 months since we started working on clearing the land, and we once thought we’d build this house in six months. It seems miraculous to me now that we’ve made it this far at all.

With rain in the forecast, we hurried to get the gutter up on the rear of the roof so we could fill up our water tank with the run-off. Our early Christmas present to ourselves was a portable hot tub we plan to put on the deck as soon as it arrives, and the storm raining down on us now as I write this is plenty to fill the tub. We’ve had months to monitor the output of the solar panels we installed earlier this year, and calculated there is plenty of power to run the heater on a hot tub whenever the sun is out. I never thought I’d be living off the grid and coming home from the beach or from a surf to jump in a hot tub.

Getting the hot tub inspired us to design an outdoor shower at the side of the house. Not only will it be handy for rinsing off sand and washing off wetsuits, but it means we could move in this December without finishing the indoor tub and bathroom. In summer months we swim almost every day, and a quick rinse off outside is all we and the kids really need out here. We constantly talk about a concept we call “minimum viable house”, which is a list of things we need to have done in order to live in the house. Hot water? Yes, part of minimum viable house. An indoor bathroom? Nope. We can brush our teeth in the kitchen.

Even without the pressure of finishing the bathroom before we move in, we’re running a tight timeline to get in by Christmas. We have a few little bits and bobs left on the outside of the house, and then we’ll tackle the inside. As summer approaches, the sun roasts down through the ozone hole over our heads. I’ll be very happy to be working indoors over these coming summer months.

(The boys were overjoyed to have the deck clear to play on for the first time ever, and went right to work building a bike ramp from the scraps.)

When we first moved here we imagined staying for a year or two. That doesn’t seem like long enough now, and even though we continue to research places in New Zealand where we’d want to settle down and get the kids going in school, that feels so far off right now. “I just want to live in the house a while,” I said to Isaac recently, to which he responded, “I just hope we can just relax a little once it’s done.” We’ve been working harder than we did back when we lived in San Francisco, working right through the weekends, taking turns looking after the kids.

Meanwhile Isaac got a longline we are dying to go fishing with, and we bought a secondhand kayak that has been stashed down at the beach waiting for us to go exploring in. We’ve gotten a few surfs in here and there, but otherwise life is pretty full-on with building in this last stretch. Once summer hits and we’re living in our “minimum viable house”, it may be a while before we get that bathroom done.

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