When big meets tiny


The owner of this tiny house, on the back of her Isuzu truck, spent two years planning her new home – and the end result is attracting a lot of attention, writes Lyn Barnes

when big meets tiny Jude travelled 6500km in the first six months and is loving being back on the road_.jpg
Jude travelled 6500km in the first six months and is loving being back on the road

Some people are so intrigued by Jude Cairncross’s mobile home that they will poke their noses in her French doors and ask for a look around. At first it was a novelty, but in the end Jude had to have signs made to deter the inquisitive.

"I’ve also had to order double blinds: one lot for the sun and others to stop people staring in! Five to 10 people a day is okay if I’m in the mood – I’ve met some lovely people – but often I just avoid eye contact. I’m an introvert and that’s why I enjoy living on my own like I do."

For Jude, completing her house truck, named Zuzu, is the result of more than two years designing, modifying and refining an idea after becoming fascinated with the concept of tiny houses she’d seen on television.

"I even looked at buying land because I wanted a tiny house so much."

when big meets tiny Jude relaxing outdoors, enjoying her million-dollar view across Lake Taupo_.jpg
Jude relaxing outdoors, enjoying her million-dollar view across Lake Taupō

The 50-something mother of one had always enjoyed holidaying in a caravan in Hawke’s Bay, where she lived until her son, Brodie, left home. (Jude and Brodie, who is now at university, have since been back to the beach in the new ‘camper’, which has a dropdown bed just for guests.)

"Camping is in my DNA; even my mum had a campervan," says Jude.

But caravan life became a hassle as it had to be moved off-site five months a year. And by then, Jude realised she preferred life on the road. She had spent two and a half years in Australia after she left home at 16 and again later.

"Then I realised I hadn’t seen much of New Zealand."

A kindergarten teacher, Jude became "seriously addicted" to the campervan lifestyle eight years ago when she found a short-term position teaching in Waipukurau. She had a house in Hastings, which is now rented, and also owned another for some time.

"I’d stay in Takapau for $3 a night during the week and, at the weekends, I’d find amazing places to explore."

Her new home is a step up from her campervans; her first two were Nissan Civilians. She toured the South Island twice.

For a while, Jude took a full-time job in Whanganui and, while the tiny house was being built, she moved back to Hawke’s Bay to work three days a week so she could spend every Friday at Le Workshop, where it was built in Napier. She took photos of the progress, which she posted on three Facebook pages; her personal page, one for Tiny Houses, and the other for single female mobile home owners, Female Travel Buddies.

Rather than a tiny house on a trailer, Jude preferred one on the back of a serious truck as she didn’t like towing but still wanted to travel.

"I did so many plans on my iPad – everything had to have more than one use. For example, the stool is also a ladder, the bed is also a couch." Even the fridge is often used as storage space.

when big meets tiny At Haumoana Bay.jpg
At Haumoana Bay

This was the first tiny house that builder Francois Guittenit had to fit on the back of a truck, rather than on a trailer, and at times it proved to be a challenge. Yet the construction still features Le Workshop’s signature look, using cedar cladding with ash floors and a large 2.2-metre x 1.5-metre wide double-glazed window at the rear. But forget gib-stopping because of the movement; instead Francois used negative-detailing lining sheets and ash for the scotia.

Jude’s initial plan included French doors with a deck, which would slide out when she was parked up, but Francois talked her out of it, otherwise she couldn’t have the bench seat under the window. "But I still feel like I have a deck," she adds.

when big meets tiny Everything including the kitchen sink and fresh herbs_.jpg
Everything including the kitchen sink and fresh herbs

She also wanted a full-size fridge and oven: "I didn’t want anything campervanny."

Unlike most tiny house designs, Jude’s could not have a loft for sleeping because of height restrictions, but the design still includes two sleeping places.

Francois and his team build a tiny house about every four to five weeks, each one with its own peculiarities. There’s a waiting list of at least six months. Once a year, Francois says one comes along that’s a real challenge.

"It keeps things exciting," he says. "But I wouldn’t do another one like that! It took a lot more time than expected, with the underfloor storage, pull-out bed, plumbing and gas fittings and also the dropdown bed-sling. It was very fiddly. Every little detail took a bit of sorting – but it was good fun." 

when big meets tiny It was important for Jude to have plenty of underfloor storage for her batteries so she can go off-grid_.jpg
It was important for Jude to have plenty of underfloor storage for her batteries so she can go off-grid

Jude also wanted underfloor storage, which she was able to have with a false floor. Unfortunately, both underfloor areas ended up with batteries in them. The larger has the four batteries and paraphernalia that enable her to be totally off-grid. With three solar panels and a 24-volt inverter bringing power when the truck is going, she doesn’t have to plug in very often.

The grey water system was another issue. She had a contact in Whanganui who sorted that part of the project, which in the end cost almost $175,000. Now the house truck can carry 200 litres of water in three tanks at the rear by the axle – and her grey water flushes through the black water when she empties at a dump station. A gas califont installed directly outside the shower ensures instant hot water.

when big meets tiny A gas califont ensures instant hot water_.jpg
A gas califont ensures instant hot water

With guidance from her mechanic in Wairoa, she chose an Isuzu NPR 450L to mount the tiny house on. Unfortunately, it needed a special cradle that took a while for the truck company to complete.

That held things up for Francois, who meanwhile continued building the windows, doors and beds while waiting for the truck. Once completed, the truck was registered as a campervan. But it took three trips for the final COF because everything was at maximum – even the door handle on the French doors had to be taken into account on the width. Other problems included the chimney being too high, and the frame around the big window at the back meant the house was too long. The end result measures 6.4 metres by 2.4 metres wide, and with the truck included it’s 8.5 metres.

"In the end, we had to unbolt the tiny house and move it forward 20mm," explains Jude, who acknowledges her project was trying for Francois, but she was delighted he finished it within her budget and timeframe.
The final step was an HT licence, which was necessary to drive the 7500kg truck.

"I wanted everything finished before Christmas; I had only two to three days to empty the old van and I was off."

She spent her first night at Haumoana Beach, but she felt like she was finally on the road again.

"I love that feeling when I wake up, before I open my eyes, and think ‘where am I?’ Or ‘Where am I going today?’ There is nothing stopping me going anywhere." For Jude, this is the ultimate lifestyle.

She’s more than happy to continue her adventures on her own. She’s been married twice and has had a few long-term relationships. "But the past eight years I’ve been single by choice... although I get lots of offers!"
So what does she love most about her tiny house? Apart from the picture window and French doors, it’s warm.

when big meets tiny Everyone who is lucky enough to be invited inside the tiny house comments on the Little Flick fire_.jpg
Everyone who is lucky enough to be invited inside the tiny house comments on the Little Flick fire

"With my lovely fire, insulation and double glazing… it was always so cold in my vans."

Her Little Flick fire is her pièce de résistance. She bought it second-hand but didn’t like the chimney so she Googled its name and found the fires were made in Kinloch. Considering she spends a lot of time around Taupō, Jude couldn’t believe her luck. Not only did its creator Raoul Lealand fix the offending chimney, he also added a corrugated iron heat-resistant panel behind the fire – and crafted some fireside tools, perfect for the miniature marvel.

when big meets tiny Jude_s mum gave her the sign_.jpg
Jude’s mum gave her the sign

As Covid lockdown came, Jude was roaming around the North Island to host a number of house-warming parties, to acknowledge the talents and expertise – "the mana tangata" – of the many people who helped create her home, from Napier to Wairoa to Whanganui. She was especially grateful for the support from her mother, both financially and emotionally, through this journey.

"Other vans have not been as welcoming as this – it’s nice to have room now to invite them in – and a bed for my mum and my son to use."

when big meets tiny Side-on view outside with Jude. The fold-down metal steps were imported from the US_.jpg
Side-on view outside with Jude. The folddown metal steps were imported from the US

Instead of throwing parties, she had to head back to Hawke’s Bay to hunker down until Level 2.
Would she change anything now she has lived on board Zuzu for six months? She wishes she had a single bed along the back window, but "I do love the bench seat/ sofa. And maybe the roof could have more slope. It was restricted because of the false floor for the double bed." But otherwise, she’s more than happy with her tiny home.

This wonder woman prefers to stay in freedom camping spots and has a criteria for selecting where to park up. The view is a priority. "It’s got to be beautiful. Also, there needs to be somewhere to walk, ride, swim or kayak – and all preferably free."

when big meets tiny HERFAV~1.jpg
Jude’s favourite features are the large back window and French doors which, when open, make the house feel much bigger than it is. Jude loves to stretch out on her "daytime couch – I don’t want to eat in bed"

Jude avoids touristy spots. Some of her favourite stopovers are:

  • Kairakau Beach, Hawke’s Bay 
  • Mangakino 
  • Kai Iwi Lakes 
  • Houhora Domain, on Lake Karapiro out of Hamilton 
  • Ward Beach, south of Blenheim 
  • Robin Hood Bay, north of Blenheim


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