Surf Shacks 055 – Jamie Smallwood
/ Matt 08.01.2017
Meet Jamie Smallwood, a man of simple tastes and pleasures who lives completely off the grid in the secluded mountain rainforest area overlooking Byron Bay and all of its glory. Jamie is an architect by trade who focuses on sustainability in his design projects whenever he can. His own home is a shining example of this; everything is recycled in some way. From the stacked, used shipping container structure, to the well-designed out house made of leftover materials, the palette wood patio, beer keg sauna, hempcrete walls, to even his own DIY surfboard quiver (by fashioning odd shortboard shapes out of broken longboards), Jamie “lets none of the beast go to waste” so to speak. I had the pleasure of meeting Jamie at his very own Fortress of Solitude on a recent trip to Australia where we discussed design / build challenges, the changing hippy culture of Byron Bay, and the pros & cons of an off-the-grid lifestyle.
Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.
Hey, I’m Jamie Smallwood. I’m part hippie, part redneck, part designer, part builder. I grew up racing mountain bikes and was a bit of a late comer to surfing in my early 20’s. Now 42, I can definitely say that some of my best days have been out on the board. I studied Industrial Design, then found my way into Building and Architecture.
Where are you from?
Northern NSW, Australia
How long have you lived here in the Byron area?
I’ve lived in the Byron Bay Hinterland for over 15 years. The area is called Goonengerry, which means ‘where the winds meet.’ It’s next door to the National Park, on the top of a mountain, which forms part of the southern rim of the volcanic caldera.
How did you find this plot of land up in the hills here?
When I first moved to the area, I used to come to the forest and explore everywhere on bikes, fell in love with the uniqueness, diversity, and beauty of the natural environment here. When this place came up, I knew it was meant to be.
How did you get all these containers into this secluded location? What was the design / build process like for you?
Ha, funny really. I skull dragged the big 40′ container in with an excavator and my old 4WD, nudging the rear end to push it around the corner. All this down a 15 degree logging track. Dodgy.
It’s been a labour of love over 6 years, stockpiling recycled materials, harvesting and milling hardwood timber. Fabricating everything on site by myself, or on occasion, with a friend who always drinks all the beer. As far as the design goes, I’ve tried to do it in a way that it could evolve and grow dependant on my time and energy, along with the budget and specific recycled items. For example, the indoor / outdoor bathroom was almost entirely built out of leftovers and found items.
What have been some of the biggest challenges and what lessons have you learned the hard way throughout the process?
It’s been a lot of labour, but also well worthy. Biggest challenges would be budget, and the time, considering the fact I have to hand do everything, and work (and surf) full time. I think patience and flexibility helps, but the biggest lesson has been compromise.
What are your favorite parts about the area in which you live?
For me it’s the mountains meeting the ocean. I get out there and explore all of nature, be it on a dirtbike or surfboard. The more untouched, the better. And then the contrast of a possible evening of ridiculousness, or an epic band playing in town.
You are completely off the grid up here. Do you ever find yourself feeling too alone in the woods?
Yes. I’m completely living off 4 solar panels, and 3 caravan batteries. It’s that simple really. I just let go of concepts such as electric kettles and toasters. There is pretty much a solution to most power issues, just go 12 volt or old school. Water off the roof was simple, living in a rainforest. The biggest issue has been welders and power tools that required a bigger generator than normal.
Sure, occasionally I get lonely, but I don’t ever feel scared. I’m at peace really, the silence is grounding for me.
Have you ever been trapped up here?
Yes. A while ago there were two cyclones back to back. There were 160 km winds for 5 days, which made the 200m tall gumtrees look like soft coral getting thrashed on the reef. It was pretty full on.
What are you favorite parts of your home?
I’m fond of the wall that opens up. It’s made from a recycled garage door cut down and re-clad with clear plastic. I call it the ‘tilta wall.’ I can sit there in the sun for hours having breakfast, or sipping tea. My new favourite is the sauna I built out of scrap with a beer keg as the heater, it’s been nick named ‘sputnik.’
How did you first get into architecture?
I decided to build my first house as a project at age 23. It took 2 years and again, I hand did every detail, it was a massive learning curve. From there the projects just rolled on. I did my time in a few architectural practices, and now I work with a great crew that is focused on sustainability and building biology.
Do you focus on sustainability in most of your other projects?
I like try to, but it’s not always possible, especially when budgets are tight. It seems almost a privilege these days, just like eating organic, when it should be just through necessity. Take developing countries for example, they are resourceful and utilize free or cheap materials. Our bureaucracies however, don’t exactly promote free thinking, or the right for any person to have shelter from the rain and cold. So for me sustainability has to cover all areas of building, especially financial.
We have been concentrating on hempcrete homes, using chopped up hemp stalk, which can even be grown and harvested from the site. It’s mixed with a binder and then packed into formwork a bit like concrete. Again, old school, it’s been around for hundreds of years. So its organic, biodegradable, sustainable — all the ables pretty much, mould and termite resistant too.
What are some other projects you’ve been working on lately?
An interesting round house. It was originally a round concrete water tank and got an extension in the late 80’s. I’m working on its third life by doubling it in size. It’s been challenging working with so many curves, but the end result will be a much more usable and efficient family friendly house.
Byron seems to have a pretty strong creative community. What makes this area such a good place for artists, nomads and socially conscious people to call home?
Hmmm, maybe it’s more that the type of person that ends up staying here long term generally is conscious, and as Jimi sang, “Experienced.” The area and general community is also very supportive of the arts, freedom of speech, and especially music. As for the nomads, well, who can blame them? It’s pretty much paradise.
Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, sage advice for other folks who want to build their own container home or live off the grid?
Perfection is over-rated, getting the job done is far more fulfilling. Less is more, and my favourite; the KISS rule (Keep It Simple Stupid).
/ Photography and interview by Matt Titone
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Special thanks to Hiromi Shibasaki for helping to produce this story.