Matthew Lillis in his completed tiny house. Photo by Trefor Ward.

How to build a tiny house


Matthew Lillis is no stranger to risk and adventure. He once competed in the gruelling Sahara Desert Ultra Marathon, a seven-day event in which he spent 40 hours running. More recently, he took a month to walk the length of the South Island Te Waiponamu, carrying and sleeping in a tent.  

Tiny houses came onto Matthew’s radar when he read an article about a woman building her own wee home. He started doing more research and realised that a tiny house aligned with his values and had an appealing streak of minimalism and adventure.  

Also, he points out, the housing market in New Zealand is difficult to get into; the ability to afford a safe and healthy home is particularly hard for those of his generation.

Matthew Lillis with his partially completed tiny house.

Matthew Lillis with his partially completed tiny house. Photo by Trefor Ward.

“I realised that by building my own small home I could make sure that good materials were used and that it was well insulated and double-glazed.’’ 

At the time he was living in a rented cottage outside of Hamilton and his landlord agreed to let him build the house there. Originally an engineer, Matthew says that his background was useful to apply to building a tiny house – even if engineers don’t necessarily know how to use drills and skillsaws.  

He admits there were some character-building moments in the early stages of the project when things went wrong, either because of inexperience or from taking shortcuts. He got to a point where the frame of the house was built and had tarpaulins over the top to keep it dry. It was mid-winter in Hamilton, so it rained. A lot. 

“I’d be out there at three in the morning when the tarps were filling up with water, trying to push the water off the top of the house without getting drenched...” 

Once weathertight, the tiny house is a cosy space.

Once weathertight, the tiny house is a cosy space. Photo by Trefor Ward.

Matthew thinks that everyone who has built a tiny house will have similar stories. 

Once the house was half built, he moved it onto a site in Hamilton owned by a good friend, Everett Norris, who runs Ever Homes tiny house workshops. He was able to finish it with Everett’s on-site help. The location was so convenient to Hamilton’s city centre that Matthew was able to cycle to his job at Hamilton City Council. He ended up living there for three years, during which time he helped with other people’s tiny house projects. 

Matthew’s tiny house took him a year to complete and was built on a tight budget. The final cost came to around $60,000. 

What's his advice to anyone contemplating building their own tiny house? "Find a friend who knows how to build houses, preferably tiny houses – whether it's a builder or just someone who's pretty skilled in building – and have them on speed dial.”  

This is what Matthew did with his friend, Everett. When he was starting out, he would call to ask things like what kind of screws he should use. But by the time he was halfway through the build, he says he had ‘learned how to learn’. 

Matthew Lillis relaxing in his tiny house.

Matthew Lillis relaxing in his tiny house. Photo by Trefor Ward.

"I think if I had had the opportunity to do a tiny house workshop early on it would have paid for itself very quickly."  

His second tiny house took a fraction of the time to complete and was built at a workshop on a marae in Raglan run by Everett. That one took 22 people (six builders and 16 students) five days to complete 75% of the project. Matthew then hitched the house to a ute and drove it to Wellington, where he now lives, to do the finishing work over the following months.   


Story and photos by Trefor Ward for the Winter 2023 issue of AA Directions magazine. 

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