An Award-Winning Tiny House

Following Sophia’s instructions, I push my bike up the long driveway and arrive at a padlocked gate. A small box with a combination lock provides the key. After wheeling my bike through I lock the gate again and return the key to the box. A pretty track leads me through the eucalypt forest until it eventually opens up onto a meadow. Sitting in the middle of the meadow is a very tiny house.

It’s not at all rustic, despite the setting and how you might imagine a cabin in the woods to be. It looks smart and modern with clean precise lines.

A line of wood pavers leads me to the entrance. I’ve been told it’s a shoe-free zone inside, so I take off my shoes and try to open the front door. It’s locked. Ah, the key! I set off on foot back along the forest track to the padlocked gate with the key box. Yes, the key-ring inside has two keys on it — silly me. I arrive back at the house and try again. I’m in.

And I’m in love — with a house.

When I was researching for this bike journey I learnt about this award-winning hideaway on Bruny Island. I would have been happy just to visit, but the owner Sophia kindly insisted that I stay a night.

Born in Taiwan, Sophia spent a lot of her childhood living in traditional Japanese houses that had been built during the Japanese occupation. From this grew a love for highly crafted minimalist design. She originally wanted to build a tree house, but her architects — Dan and Hugh from ‘Maguire & Devine’ — told her it would be too difficult to get legal approval. So this tiny house was designed, with a footprint of only 28 square metres.

In 2018 it won awards from the Australian Institute of Architects, including for Residential Architecture Houses (New) and for Sustainable Architecture.

I bumped into Sophia at the turn off from the main road on my way in. She had come early to get the place cleaned up for me, and was slipping away before I arrived. She was also exhausted and sleep deprived from doing night shifts at the hospital emergency department in Hobart where she works as a doctor.

Sophia tells me that she created this hideaway as a retreat where she can lick her wounds after a week of battling in the busy hospital. A place where she can disconnect from daily routines, relax and let her imagination run wild.

Sophia recalls a quote by Ghandi: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not enough to satisfy every man’s greed.” She was never interested in luxury items or owning a “McMansion”. For her the cabin needed to be sustainable and kind to the earth. It’s completely off-grid, collecting water from the rain and power from the sun. Heating is from the wood fire using dead wood found on the property. The only compromise was the gas bottles for cooking and hot water. She wanted it small so as not to accumulate junk, and with minimal furniture to keep it clutter free.

Slipping off my shoes a second time at the front door, I carefully enter and take in the beautiful space. I can’t believe I have this place all to myself.

There’s a bathroom to my right, and then an open plan living and dining area with a kitchen, food preparation bench, a stove, two sinks, and a wood heater. Baltic pine makes up the floor, walls and ceiling; varnished and bright. It’s full of light, with a big skylight above, two big glass sliding doors on either side leading onto large wooden decks, and at the far end a huge, seamless window looking out over the meadow and forest. A staircase leads up to a loft with a double mattress.

I saw solar panels on the roof on my way in, so I go searching for a power point to recharge my dying phone. There must be one somewhere. I follow the cord from the kettle down through a hole in the bench and discover a power point underneath. Shortly after I find a power point next to the bed; and it has an inbuilt USB port — how convenient.

Rather than having separate items of furniture, everything is built in. The sitting and dining area is a raised dais in front of the main window, with sheepskin rugs to sit on and a low Japanese-style table. There’s even an inbuilt bathtub in one of the outdoor decks.

And then I discover the hidden compartments. I’d been confused by the cupboards under the sink, as they don’t have handles, but I eventually figure out they’re spring-loaded and pop open when you push on them. Soon I realise that many of the wooden panels around the room are actually hidden cupboards.

I feel like a child in a toy shop, opening every panel to see what I can find: a fridge, a washing machine, floor cushions, rollout futons, fold up chairs, another low table, games. You could host a whole family here. Everything seems so well thought out to optimise space.

It’s cold and overcast outside, with a fine mist rain, and I’m sweaty and grubby from living on my bike. I shower and change in to clean clothes, make myself some afternoon tea, then settle in at the table, sitting cross-legged on a sheepskin rug. As I eat I start to wonder what I’m going to do with myself for the rest of the day. Relax, I suppose — something I’m not very good at, but which I know I ought to practice.

On a shelf in front of me is a row of books,with titles such as ‘Small Architecture’, ‘Living in Japan’ and ‘Tree Houses’, as well as a number of books on local birds, flowers and fungi. There’s a book called ‘Cabin Porn’, as well as one on Japanese Forest Bathing, though neither are about people getting naked. There’s also a book on the night sky, and tucked beneath the staircase is a large telescope.

A pair of violins are hanging in an alcove beneath the bookshelf. It makes for a poetic image. I remember watching a Japanese film several years ago called ‘Departures’, in which the main character would sometimes sit in a forest meadow and play his cello. It was melancholic and beautifully touching, and was part of what inspired me to take up the cello as an adult. I’m still not particularly good at it, but I love my cello, and can imagine some of what Sophia might feel coming out to this quiet place to play the violin.

I see a flash of red and grey through the window — two small birds are flitting amongst the tufts of sedge in the meadow. I look them up in the bird book on the shelf: scarlet robins, one male, one female.

I try to put my finger on why this place makes me so happy. Perhaps it’s having everything I need contained in one single hyper-functional room, without all the stress that comes with having too much stuff. Perhaps it’s that it’s a beautiful refuge from all the pressures of the world; it applies a handbrake on compulsive busy-ness, and invites you to spend time just gazing out the window. Or perhaps it’s that by minimising the size of the house they’ve maximised the amount of nature around it.

And even with my excessive height I’ve only bumped my head once climbing the stairs.

Soon the wallabies come out, hopping around just outside the window. I settle in for an evening of looking at ‘cabin porn’ — it seems I’m not the only one with a fetish for small cabins in wild places.

A huge thank you to Sophia for so generously letting me stay in her amazing hideaway.