The beauty of living small

The nineteenth century textile designer, William Morris, said, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” It’s a smart edict to live by, though easier said than done when you have more rooms than you know what to do with and drawers overflowing with clutter.


But shedding the shackles of too much stuff and living an easier life can be incredibly liberating. Four Lendlease Retirement Living residents who downsized their own homes share their ideas and style advice.

Reuse and recycle

It’s true that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that giving new life to something old is an eco-friendly way of giving your home some unique touches. But the benefits of recycling go beyond aesthetics. According to Clean Up Australia, Australians are among the highest waste producers in the world, generating almost 41 million tonnes of rubbish each year, half of which is either being dumped in the environment or sent to landfill where it can’t be recycled. The simple act of recycling one tin-can saves enough electricity to keep a TV running for three hours. So imagine what could be achieved if we decorated our homes with sustainability in mind.

The beauty of repurposing is that there’s no limit to how creative you can be. Wooden crates, stacked on their sides, become a rustic bookshelf. Empty flour sacks make striking cushion covers. Old fabrics can be stretched on a frame for instant wall art. Empty jars and bottles are the perfect vessels for sprouting succulents. Combining imagination with resourcefulness is the perfect recipe for reducing the ever-climbing mountain of rubbish.

Ex-fitter and turner and marine engineer, Don Glasby, has had plenty of experience reusing and recycling. He was the chairman for the Gladstone Men’s Shed, where they mainly made toys from recycled materials, for disabled children in collaboration with the special school. He lived on acreage for 35 years, before he and his wife Raelene downsized their home and moved into town. When the garden got too much for them, they moved a second time. Now residents at The Lakes Retirement Village in Queensland's Bundaberg North, Don is in the process of setting up The Lakes North Project Shed, where the community can work alongside each other.

“We’ve been to the tip and found things like old doors, which have already been turned into a cupboard to store our tools,” he said. “I’m still in touch with the shed in Gladstone, because they’re going to donate us some tools. I’m just assessing the sort of things we’ll need.”

Don says mindfulness is key when it comes to what you’re going to throw away or recycle. Think about if its place is really in the bin, if you can give it away or turn it into something new. “We’re very careful about what we discard – I’m a bit of a hoarder, really. Our rubbish tin’s only ever a quarter full. So many people throw so much stuff away but there are other people in the community who’d love to have those things.

In his own home, Don’s already done several renovations and made furniture using sustainable materials. “Since we moved into the [retirement] village I’ve made a couple of changes to our house. Raelene didn't have many drawers in the kitchen and wanted some more, so I reused the doors and shelves that I took out of the cupboard, turned them into drawers, and put ‘lazy susans’ in all the cupboards too, so she doesn't have to bend down too far. I’ve made drawers for the computer room from scrap material, and a few pieces of furniture like bookshelves and tables. Where I can, I use materials I’ve collected. Most of the things I make come from scrap material. Hardware stores and places like Bunnings often throw material away if it’s slightly damaged, even with a tiny chip. Personally, I love working with fine grain timber, inlaying timber and stuff like that. I always keep busy. Making things helps keep me young.”

Go green

A flash of colour, a rustle of leaves, the gentle fragrance of flowers; letting Mother Nature into and around your home can create a soothing element that not only looks beautiful but can provide some surprising health benefits. A study by NASA found that plants can filter out harmful compounds and purify the air. Aloe Vera, Peace Lilies and Chrysanthemums are just a few of the clever varieties that are particularly effective. If that’s not enough, further research has found pot plants balance humidity levels, and can also boost energy, improve concentration and even inspire creativity.

Husband and wife team Rodger and Gwen Elliot know a thing or two about cultivating plants. The Victorian couple, who live in Lendlease's Woodlands Park Retirement Village, received an OAM in 2001 for their horticultural work, and were recognised with the Horticultural Media Association’s Gold Laurel award for 2013 – 14, as well as being admitted into its hall of fame. Recently they’ve been spending time with the Resident Gardening Group, sharing their knowledge on propagating native Australian plants.

Gwen says that if you’re short on space, small pots on the windowsill can be an easy and attractive option. “It’s beaut to be able to grow some edible things, even if they’re only pots of herbs like mint, parsley, thyme or basil to include when you’re cooking,” she says. You don't even need to have a large patch of soil to create a beautiful garden. “We had a lot of hard pavings outside, so we lifted the pavings up and planted herbs in the ground there,” adds Rodger. “We don't have a lot of greenery in the house but we have floor to ceiling windows, so we have a pretty good outlook.”

There are plenty of striking varieties of plants you can grow if you want to make a style statement, and Gwen and Rodger say Australian native plants are their favourite ornamentals. “There are some really good ones among them,” says Rodger. “Some of the long-flowering Grevilleas are beautiful. In fact, looking out the window now, I can see a Wattle bird getting nectar from the Grevillea which is lovely. Winter is one of the best times for them. Wattle’s a good one too – it starts to flower in late June, which is perfect if you want a bit of colour.”

“You can snap off some of the foliage and stick it in a vase,” Gwen adds. Some of the plants have very pretty fragrances too. Lemon Myrtle, for example, is a native shrub that has the most marvelous lemon fragrance – it looks great on the windowsill, and you can use it in your cooking too.” Beautiful and edible – Mother Nature really has thought of everything.

Embrace the Tiny House movement

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian houses are amongst the biggest in the world, with new builds taking up an average of 263msq. But a new wave of thinking, which started in the US and is slowly making its way to Australia, is that we really don't need all that space. In fact, we can be happy with the bare minimum, and the environmentally-conscious – and cost-effective – lifestyle of having less, can be surprisingly rewarding.

Fred Schultz from Templestowe in Victoria runs a business building small houses, running workshops and consulting aspiring small-home builders. He shares advice on his website fredstinyhouses.com.au, and built his own 10msq home, complete with low voltage fridge, Japanese style tub, composting toilet and solar panels for off-the-grid living, for only $37,000.

Tiny houses naturally consume less of our natural resources and that's more sustainable for our planet and future generations,” he says. “Conventional housing is priced out of reach for many Australians. Heating and cooling costs are continuing to rise faster than average income.  Yet people want the security of affordable utility costs.  A tiny house makes sense in today's economic climate.”

A building contractor by trade, Owen’s last project involved him building an entire street of nine houses, each a different style. “We kept the last house for ourselves – a Tuscan style home on five acres,” he says. “It had six bedrooms and five bathrooms, which I put in so all the kids could visit. But there was so much ground that when I wasn’t mowing, I was weeding and when I wasn’t weeding I was gardening." While he hasn't quite embraced the extremes of the Tiny House movement, Owen has experienced first hand the lifestyle and financial benefits of going smaller by moving to retirement community Closebourne Village, in Morpeth, NSW.  

"In a way, when we moved to Closebourne, it was a blessing in disguise. We downsized to a two-bedroom home, which meant we had to shed a lot of our belongings. It’s costing us a lot less too.”

Owen says that while it’s easy to accumulate plenty over time, it’s liberating realising you don’t actually need that much, and smaller spaces can lend themselves to some inviting interiors.

“My wife’s really good at interior decorating. For example, in the lounge room we’ve put in a fireplace with bookcases either side. You might not think you can do that sort of thing in a space like we have, but you can – and it’s magic.

“The best way to approach downsizing is to get rid of a lot of your things, like furniture, and begin again to suit the space – just keep it simple. There’s no downside to it that I can see.”

Moving house can come with unexpected benefits too. “The best thing about living at Closebourne Village is the people. When we lived on acreage, there weren’t that many people around that we knew. But now, we live in a community. You could say we downsized our living space – and upsized our social life.”