Enabling change in our Society, Environment and Economy (SEE)

Living small

Story by Edwina Robinson
Photos by Julia Coddington
16 March 2018

I’ve been living in small dwellings on and off since 2015.

It all began when my son and I decided to embark on a project – the conversion of a shipping container into a 20 square metre abode. I would supply the money, the back garden and he’d supply the grunt and together we’d develop the design.

We put aside some money my father had left me to undertake the work. It took nine months and left us with lots of learnings and led to many other things.

The 6×2.4 metre container was delivered to site and inched into position atop timber sleepers. Then the dirty, hard yacka began – ripping out the timber floor (shipping container floors are impregnated with nasties), rust removal (inside and out) and rust repair.

We designed two alcove additions – a built-in bed with storage drawers underneath on castors and a 2.4 metre kitchenette.

I wanted a light flooded space so my son, Lachlan installed a bank of double glazed windows to the north façade. This arrangement performs best in winter when sun floods in and heats the space to the mid 20s.

Our biggest failing was on maintaining comfortable temperatures year round. The container gets very hot in summer and very cold on a winter’s night. We’d used a spray-in ‘eco’ insulation from Sydney – but didn’t make it thick enough.

A container is basically a box and has no eaves or eyebrows to shade the windows – so while this is excellent for Canberra winters, summer can be a nightmare. Building a vegetated 2nd roof would fix this.

Besides these issues, living small has taught me many things. One of them, is you don’t need a lot of ‘things’ to live well.

A small space is aesthetically pleasing when it’s clutter-free. It needs to have good storage for the things you really need and like a lot. I have a comfy bed and a lounge that doubles as a bed, a stand- up desk, kitchenette and indoor plants. The windows allow in lots of light and views of the garden.















Basically one room has its limitations – it’s like living in a very nice motel – so I cook and eat out in the garden in warm weather and go out more.

When we designed the container abode I was single. Now I have a partner who is big so it feels less spacious when he is there. Add Finbar, the puppy and it’s uber squishy.

After finishing the container, Lachlan built the ’90 day house’.  The interior and exterior walls are formed from ply sandwiched together with Styrofoam for insulation. This building copes much better than the container with climatic extremes.

Although micro, with a footprint of 3.6m x 2.7m, the ’90 day house’ includes a mezzanine loft with a bed that creates greater separation of living and sleeping/resting.

In a way, these designs have been prototypes for exploring different ways of living. Living with less objects and having less space to clean. It takes me about 10 minutes to tidy the container.

Living small is also a cheaper way to live than building and maintaining an average sized Australian house of around 230m2. It frees you up to do other things, like work less and do the things you are passionate about. After moving into the container, I rented out my house, resigned from the public service and travelled to Vietnam and Laos.

What would we do differently?  We’d build from scratch (not retrofit a metal structure designed for transporting cargo), install thick insulation and include a bathroom and kitchen so the building was completely self-contained.


The shipping container conversion and 90 day house were opened in March 2018 to the public as one of SEE-Change’s Sustainable House Days. Edwina stays in the shipping container when she is working in Canberra as the Executive Officer of SEE-Change.  

She and her partner, Peter, are building a bigger yet small environmentally sensitive house in Moruya, NSW – the house is less than 100 square metres and has only one bedroom. It’s north facing, has double-glazed windows, polished concrete floor, stone internal wall for thermal mass, uses recycled timber internally and has a large garden full of local native plants and edibles, a solar array (4.7KW) and a 22,000 litre rainwater tank.


With thanks to our


  • ACT Government Environment and Planning
  • The Association of Independent Schools of the ACT (AISACT)
  • Catholic Education Office (Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn)
  • Education and Training Directorate
  • ACT Government