Dreaming, Building, Loving and Losing the Gratitude House

In the end, Claire, our young designer, turns out to be a star. We knew it all along. Her second house – designed for her mother in Brisbane – is recognized as the 2015 Brisbane House of the Year.

Karl and I work on every part of our Gratitude House: designing, negotiating, supervising, purchasing, sanding, painting, screwing, varnishing, welding, hammering…

Photo: Denny Thornborough

And loving every bit of it.

Karl installs most of the kitchen and does much of the other building work himself.

The ecological features of our house perform brilliantly. All our careful research pays off, and Claire’s precise sun-shading measurements keep us comfortable year-long without heating or air-conditioning.

December 22, 6 am
March 22, 7 am

Precise attention to solar orientation and sun shading protect our eco-house from the fierce sub-tropical sun. The sunlight reaches only one floorboard into the wide (4.25-metre) verandah at mid-summer, keeping the whole building cool in the sub-tropical heat.

Shady deck, summer 2013

And, in the winter, direct sunlight reaches a full 8.25 meters across the deck and to the far living room wall, warming an ample interior space and keeping it warm overnight.

Sunny deck, mid-winter, 2016  Photo: Denny Thornborough
Sunny living room, mid-winter

Although building our house is a massive struggle, a huge expense, and in the eyes of many of our friends, our greatest folly, we adore everything about it.

Karl resting in the process of installing flooring in the guest bedroom, February 2011

Living in a rural paradise

I blog in August 2009 (while we were living in the partly built house) that I feel blessed to be “living in a rural paradise, awakened by the raucous laughter of a dozen kookaburras in a nearby tree and spending late winter afternoons watching a family of five wallabies relaxing and eating the new grass shoots on the lawn.”

Mother wallaby with joey

Even though some friends who visit us claim, “I could never live like this,” we persist.

From heaven, Karl confesses later:

We didn’t know how to make the house. That’s the truth. Each of us thought the other one knew how. We just didn’t know!


Reading Karl’s poignant admission, I remember my Christmas gifts to him a few years before we moved permanently to the Nimbin property: a tool belt and a spirit level. He barely knew how to use them then.

Christmas 2002 in Brisbane


By late 2013, I am convinced that we cannot recover from our perilous financial malaise, initiated by the Global Financial Crisis. A healer suggests I seek divine assistance. Desperate, I write to “The Angels Who Love Me” in late 2013. Reading that letter later (clearly unsent; where do those angels receive their mail?), I feel deeply saddened: 

Seventh-Generation housing

While I develop new professional products (like workshops and publications), arguing that when fisherfolk can’t go to sea, they mend their nets, I finally have to admit that we are going to lose our property. A financial planner I consult agrees that our situation is hopeless. We cannot pay our debts. Before the bank can take the house, I develop my innovative “seventh-generation housing” strategy to find a buyer to allow us to remain permanently as tenants.

Through the help of a kindly broker, a great prospect materializes and then suddenly falls through, and Morag (an old friend) comes to the rescue. But that arrangement (which Karl does not trust for one second) ends in catastrophe.


Within a few months, for reasons we never understand, Morag announces that she has to sell the house. Immediately. For us, homelessness is imminent. A few months later, after an anxious wait, my best friend, Anne, rescues us by buying the house from Morag (but at Morag’s inflated price that dramatically increased our rent). My business is at a standstill. Building a granny flat is one way to improve the property’s rental income. But local planning regulations curtail that option, and our neighbors vehemently object.

Losing ownership of our property nearly breaks Karl’s heart and drives a wedge between us.

I feel that the house sale is my decision, as I am the one with the maxed credit cards and the mortgage in my name. I cannot see any way out. In the end, years of worry begin to show. Karl is losing weight and having difficulty walking uphill. He can no longer mow the steeper parts of the back lawn. And he is struggling with the emotional burden of our approaching insolvency. He looks grey, haggard, and exhausted. When I look at photos of me at that time, I can see that I did not look well, either. It is a difficult time for both of us.

At the same time, as I was to learn later, Karl is bonding even more closely with the Nimbin community, growing into the role of a much-loved Nimbin elder. My focus is elsewhere: marketing my business, trying to land consulting jobs, and dreaming up projects that took me away from our rural community. Karl’s whole life is in Nimbin, working as a volunteer and helping disadvantaged people.


Although we are throwing everything at our projects, try as we might, Karl, and I just can’t get things right. A “struggletown” quality infuses our lives for months, for years. However, as 2016 dawned, as a couple, we are doing better than we had in the past 20 years. We are peaceful and loving. We’ve forgiven what needed to be forgiven. Our love has deepened and feels comforting and compassionate. We’ve both buckled down to try to keep afloat.

And we are in constant financial turmoil. Our housing, while secure, is now too expensive, and the rent will rise again; we have endless tenant and landlord issues that we handle poorly, despite trying hard; and my business income has shrunk virtually to nil following knock-on effects of the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis.

When I close down my company, my accountant advises closing the sole business entirely. She calls the work I am now doing “a hobby”. I am stung but have to agree. Our carry-over business losses are gigantic. Our combined income is tiny. We depend on the government aged pension.

Our struggles are like a persistent, annoying mantra:

Will we have enough?

Will we be strong enough to cope?

Will we be all right if and when we get through this latest crisis?

Do we have the resources and resilience to survive?

Our once passionate romantic relationship has morphed into something more companionable, loving and constant, but not what I had hoped for.

Later I was to learn the reason why.