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Alden Fitzmaurice
House Every Weekend

The Tipperary movement teaching people to solve the housing crisis for themselves

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and build a gaff.

“IF YOU CAN build a frame, you can build a house.”

When Paul Lawford, founder of the Small Change Movement, first spoke these words to me and my five companions on the Basic Build Course in the Tipperary town of Cloughjordan, I thought: that is a very nice sentiment. I also thought: you will never succeed in teaching me to build a frame, much less a house.  

At 31 years of age, I am the archetypal helpless millennial. Not only that, but as a diagnosed dyspraxic, my fine motor skills leave much to be desired. The closest I’ve ever come to craftsmanship was a few months of woodwork in first year of secondary school. I scarred myself twice with a chisel and was ordered to study music instead. 

The Basic Build Course aims to teach beginners both the principles and practicalities of building through the lens of assembling a Tiny Home – miniature modular homes, often portable, weighing 3.5 tonnes or less. While some of my fellow builders were seeking to build their own Tiny Homes, my own interest lay simply in learning to be a bit more useful.

To begin with, I will give you an example of my general uselessness as of last week: the train from Heuston to Cloughjordan stops in the town of Ballybrophy in Laois, at which point passengers change to get to Tipperary. Or at least, most passengers do. In attempting to change trains, I somehow boarded the train back to Heuston Station and didn’t realise my mistake until I heard the words “An Céad Stad Eile… Droichead Nua”, thereby missing the comprehensive health and safety tutorial that kicks off the weekend. 

Despite my late arrival, the instructors kindly caught me up while we ate lunch, and within a matter of hours I was standing with my left hand behind my back and my right hand on the trigger of a mounted circular saw, experiencing the profound satisfaction of making an even cut into a piece of timber, marvelling at my own artistry, patting myself on the back for learning my first ever transferrable skill. 

From Friday morning until Sunday afternoon, the course offers a theoretical overview on the many wonders of timber, the importance of correct planning and measurements, and the advantages in sustainability afforded by Tiny Home living. Most of the weekend, however, is taken up with practical sessions, which cover processes such as measuring, planing, advanced framing, raising walls, roofing, and most terrifying of all, power tools. 

After plenty of discussion, demonstration, and letting other people go first, it was time for me to get my hands dirty. Drills, impact drivers, jigsaws. A nail gun! The first time you fire three nails into a vertical stud to connect it to a timber header? Let me tell you, it’s like being re-baptised. Framing is a straightforward, satisfying and easily repeatable process, meaning that actions which were once entirely alien suddenly become fixed in muscle memory. As the weekend wore on, it became clear that Lawford’s wisdom on the matter of framing was correct. 

The repetitiveness in measuring, cutting and affixing allowed us to get comfortable with the the processes quickly, and by the end of the second day we had our floor frame finished, four walls ready to be clad and roofed, as well as a door frame and two window frames built into our tiny little home. While we didn’t get the whole thing finished, six novices getting 85% of a house-frame built over the course of three days (including some long lunches in the sun) is nothing to be sniffed at. 

For anyone who thinks of housing in the abstract – structures designed, sourced and built by disparate committees of strangers over months and years – it is a fascinating democratisation of information and skills that often feel inaccessible. More than that, the course instils a sense of control over one’s own fate in a housing market that feels endlessly chaotic, oppressive and bleak. 

Those running the course deserve credit for creating a laidback atmosphere in which mistakes are easily forgiven and quickly corrected, and regular breaks are available for anyone who wants to take one (though why anyone would need a break from using a nail gun is beyond me). 

“It’s incredibly empowering and inspiring to see fear turn to confidence and a whole new language of building open up for people,” Lawford says. “It gives me hope to think that some other people in my generation could solve two of the biggest challenges we face, finding somewhere affordable and environmentally sound to live.”

IMG_9918 The Basic Builders Small Change Movement / Alden Fitzmaurice Small Change Movement / Alden Fitzmaurice / Alden Fitzmaurice

Tiny Homes

Formerly an events organiser, Lawford discovered the potential of Tiny Homes while attending an entirely separate workshop on permacultures in Cloughjordan’s Eco Village in 2019.

Staring into the abyss that is the housing crisis and weaponising the free time afforded by the first Covid-19 lockdown, Lawford relocated to a warehouse in Laois to begin work on the Tiny Home he has been living in since 2021. Originally from Dublin, he had begun to save up for a deposit on a “brick and mortar” house before veering away from that well-beaten path that beats so many into submission. 

“Tiny Homes have changed my outlook on money more than anything else,” Lawford tells The Journal. “Debt is an incredibly powerful tool for banks to leverage – they’re getting you to spend money you haven’t made yet, and charging you massive margins for the privilege.”

“No one pays cash for their house/home/apartment, so obviously massive loans are the only option, a shit deal we all just have to (supposedly) grow up and accept. Except maybe its not, if you’re willing to make the trade-off of living in an non-conventional tiny home.” 

All-told, his own home – which does have running water and electricity, in case you’re wondering – cost him around €30,000 to build in 2021. This comes to around 10% of the median price of a traditional house in Ireland.

Lawford’s own house is the prime example of what a Tiny Home can be. Containing a bathroom, kitchen, office space and loft, the structure is over two metres tall and over four metres long. It is powered entirely by solar panels, and while the house is on wheels and can be moved, its currently settled on a four-acre piece of land owned by another Tiny Home-dweller, whose Tiny Home is even bigger again. 

IMG_9153 Lawford's Tiny Home Carl Kinsella Carl Kinsella

Nevertheless, Lawford remains realistic about the magnitude of the challenge facing those seeking a home in Ireland.

“Tiny houses are certainly solution to the housing crisis, and certainly not the solution,” he says.”That would be recognising housing as a human right and logical housing policy that actually got significant affordable and social housing built in a timely fashion.” He’s not holding his breath on that front.

At the risk of sounding overly earnest, the course had an indisputable impact on my own self-belief. Until last weekend, I was the last person my friends would have trusted with a device that can fire a nail into a thick plank of wood at a high speed. Now it is I who judge them. Look at me. I am the handyman now. The workman’s pants that I bought from Zara at Christmas have now served as actual workman’s pants. I had a dream about getting splinters.

I am a changed man. I arrived in Cloughjordan entirely prepared for the possibility that I’d be returning to Dublin in an ambulance after taking the hand off myself with a reciprocating saw. I left Tipperary entirely confident that if you were to drop me in a forest with an axe, some power tools and some screws, I could build myself a makeshift shelter. Or at least defend myself with my beloved nail gun.

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