As the founder of conscious PR and marketing studio Slojourn, Tess Wilcox has worked with the world’s most pioneering properties in the sustainable travel space. But when COVID-19 hit, she lost 18 out of 20 clients within a month due to the borders closing indefinitely, forcing her to make some rapid life decisions. We caught up with Tess to chat about her forced slow down over the past two years, which involved leaving her Gold Coast base to build her own gorgeous tiny home amongst the towering trees of Western Australia’s Margaret River region.
Tell us about the big changes in your life over the past two years. How did you come to building your own tiny home?
Ah the big Sea Change! It’s quite a ‘find the silver linings’ story and one that I never thought would happen at this stage of my life. I am a born and bred Margaret River girl but haven’t lived there for nearly 20 years. Most of my family is there but it wasn’t ripe with opportunities for my business previously and my office and team were based on the Gold Coast. Home was always between Currumbin and our clients.
When COVID hit, it was pretty tragic for my business. We lost 18 out of 20 clients within a month, so I packed up my house, my office and my life, and drove across the country mid-pandemic, back to the family property. For the first time in my career, I was really forced to slow down. The property is 30 acres, and a $100 shipping container was dumped on a flattened-out section with the best view of the forest. It had always been my dream to build a tiny(ish) sustainable home that I could use as my base. And I just started. One nail at a time. One sheet of ply at a time. I threw myself into the project and it was by far the best thing I’ve done.
“My dad is an architect so I had a lot of help along the way, but it turned into a 12-month slow build of a little dream cabin. I still can’t quite believe I did it – and I love it so much.”
“It’s my eternal refuge – a place to write, to drink wine, to listen to music, to cook. It’s not quite finished, I still have the kitchen to build, but for now it’s functional and aesthetically beautiful. And it’s home.”
Where did you source your materials for the tiny home? And was there a lot of DIY or did you have help?
I was very lucky in that my dad works with a lot of suppliers that had faulty materials that were being discarded – which had hardly anything wrong with them but they were unable to sell. We basically grabbed anything that was going into landfill for no reason and worked it into the build somehow. Then with the rest we tried as much as possible to keep it to timber so it stored carbon in it for life.
The shipping container part was entirely DIY for dad and I – so much so that if you ever put an angle grinder near me again I will run for the hills. We had a builder in for about a month to handle the foundations, then the rest was pretty much me. A lone operator listening to music and learning as I went. We had the windows and doors created by local tradesman because I think it’s important to support local artisans and trade.
My longest and most adored client, Soneva, inspired many aspects of it. In terms of the vibe and the interiors. The rest was a culmination of everything I love fused with Bruma Casa 8 and the Manchausen Cabins in Norway.
What are the most sustainable aspects of your tiny home?
It uses only rainwater from the extra tank we installed on the property and has a composting toilet that needs to be emptied into the orchard every month or so once it’s broken down. The bathroom and sink are connected to a leech drain that dad and I built that slow feeds the citrus trees in the orchard out the front. I opted to not use a gas heater or gas stove as they are being phased out in a lot of countries due to their impact on the environment. So it’s a rebated electric water heater. Eventually I will transition it over to solar power, but it’s a work in progress.
The north facing position and angle of the windows allows for the greatest amount of sun in winter, and shade in summer from the overhang we designed. Then I have a chook pen next door for eggs, a huge veggie garden, and an orchard. I’m slowly working towards it being self-sufficient.
Because my parents live on the same property we embody the ‘shared community’ approach to everything. I walk over to their place to use the laundry, we swap tools and gardening equipment. It’s very communal, which is what a lot of life is missing these days.
“It’s designed to be a creative space – no TV, no electronics, just nature. You can walk directly to the beach through the forest and national park, and the walk is lined with orchards, creeks, waterfalls so I can forage for a lot. Watercress, figs, berries. That’s a pretty nice way to start the day.
How long did the build process take and what did you learn along the way?
It was a slow process, but that was intentional. It took about 12 months total, but we only had help for about a month or two of that and I was still running a business in the meantime. Due to the pandemic there were a lot of delays in shipping and materials which slowed us down too, but I like that. I love having a project to throw myself into.
My biggest learning was how many aspects of a self-build are challenging to keep sustainable. There were things like insulation and glues that I would have loved to make better decisions on, but it’s also all about accessibility. I learnt the great art of patience and how wonderful it feels to have built the place I call home.
I love everything about it. The deck, the windows, the timber vibe, the bathroom, the walk-in robe! There are gaps in my timber sheets, a corner where I laid the grain the wrong way, a creak in the floor, parts still unfinished. But that’s the magic of it, it’s full of stories. I hate polished and new. This is rustic and built by hand, and a project I did with my dad that I will carry through the rest of my life.
“If I were to build another tiny home, I wouldn’t use a shipping container. I love that we reused something that was going to be discarded, but in reality a complete timber build would have been easier.”
How would you describe what ‘slow travel’ is?
To us, it means a conscious foray into exploring the world in the most intentional, regenerative and circular way. We are entering a new era in the world, where not only does travel need to be meaningful to the traveller, but it’s essential for the entire industry to be focused on closed-loop operations. There has been a disconnect amongst the biggest hitters in the industry for such a long time, and with what our planet is facing we have no other option but to reconnect to all pillars of travel. Community, sustainability, social equality.
Why are you so passionate about ‘slow journeys’ and slow travel?
Without wanting to sound too cliché, it just runs deep in who I am and how I was raised. Connection to land, to community, to awareness of impact. My core question to myself is ‘what kind of steward am I going to be in life?’, so I allow that to drive me in everything that I do. Plus, I think we as humans have a duty to the earth and ensuring the paths we walk are paved with purpose. Travel has had such an impact on my life, and in learning the stories of the people and the seasons we encounter, slowing down and embracing the real essence of a destination and its people … well there is nothing more beautiful or more vital.
When it comes to slow travel, do you have any tips on how people can make more sustainable and conscious choices when booking and organising their holidays?
It’s about balancing thirst for experience with our inevitable impact. We need to ask ourselves one simple question when planning our next trip – can I minimise my negative impact and dial up my positive impact with my choices?
So choose providers and operators that are unwaveringly committed to conservation, the community and social impact. Research your trip (not too much, don’t spoil the fun). Stay away from Instagram hot spots ‘just for the shot’. We need to be better than that. Those places are getting overrun with mass tourism just to feed our egos. You can find brands to support on the Slojourn website, and partners like Regenerative Travel, Y Travel and the Conscious Travel Foundation.
IF IN DOUBT, stay for longer, interact with the local community, don’t geo-tag places, and message people campaigning for sustainable tourism on Instagram – we’re always willing to help.