Mi Casa, Su Casa: Community solutions to individual problems

I’m a single woman. The problem with being single is living alone and having the burden of home maintenance fall squarely on my shoulders. The problem with being a woman is that we’re just not really taught DIY as girls. Look, I can cook, clean, sew, and all those other things I was taught growing up. I can organise, plan, coordinate and budget. Basically, if we’re talking successful adulting, “I am woman hear me roar”, and all that. But when it comes to renovations and home maintenance (not to mention changing engine oil or fixing a whipper snipper cable), I have to actively acquire those skills as an adult because nobody ever taught me how.

The first (and only) time I renovated a property I had a partner. Quite honestly he was as clueless about DIY as I was at the beginning, but together we learned the basics and put it into practice. It was a great confidence booster to see my handiwork improve the aesthetics of my new (old) home.

But I have to admit, I simply couldn’t have done most of it without his help.

Fast forward a decade, I’m single and it’s time to renovate again. Turns out home maintenance and DIY isn’t a set-and-forget deal. Pondering my large scale reno plans to turn my ageing, humble one bedroom unit into a modern and comfortable oasis fit for months-long COVID-induced lockdowns at home, I have two options:

1. Pay the professionals to do it all (saving me hassle, and maybe some time, but also costing me a good deal), or

2. Doing it myself — literally myself — on my own, me, solo, singularly.

Honestly, I have forgotten a lot of what I learned the first time and wasn’t especially skilled at it at any rate, so there’s both a time cost to re-learn, in addition to a risk of not doing it right. Load-bearing wall collapse anybody? Just kidding. Maybe just a tiling disaster.

The other major obstacle is that some tasks are just not really possible with one person. Whoever laid carpet on their own? Plus, it’s definitely more fun to get dirty with mates.

As I was contemplating this conundrum, I had a truly brilliant idea…..Imagine if I could recruit a group of friends and neighbours who would be keen to help me — maybe people who already had reno experience, maybe some who’d like to learn but were happy to pitch in.

A few years ago I got involved with permaculture. It’s a farming/gardening methodology that harnesses the characteristics of nature for mutual benefit.

Where is this going? Well, the permaculture community came up with an ingenious way to promote this way of harmonising with nature that brings lasting benefits to everyone involved. Permablitzes are essentially community-driven working bees that involve instruction, learning and doing. And lunch. A person’s gotta eat!

And I thought, “What if I ran a permablitz for renovations?

Single women (and others) get the people-power they need to help them undertake DIY projects or renovations in their homes. At the same time, a tradie or a DIY expert can be hired to provide the know-how and guidance to teach Blitz participants the skills to undertake the tasks, together with project supervision to make sure the job is being done correctly by…well, novices! And last but definitely not least, locals who are keen to learn new skills and get hands-on experience can join in, meet their neighbours, and make new friends as they work together. And lunch.

Again, taking cues from the Permablitz model, I figured participants would ‘earn’ their way to hosting a renovation project in their own home by joining a few Blitzes first, which also allows them to pass on their newly-acquired skills and knowledge to others. A virtuous cycle of reciprocity creating a win-win-win community-driven solution to individual problems.

And with that RenoBlitz was born!

RenoBlitz is a GiveGet initiative

Although the Blitz part is the genesis of RenoBlitz, it was important for me it was more than just people beautifying their homes with an army of helpers, awesome as that already is. Lending from the concept of Share Libraries, I also wanted to support neighbours to share their underutilised resources locally, and incorporated a Tool Share service. People can register their tool box, electric tools, box trailer, specialist equipment, wheelbarrow, ladder etc (one person even offered the use of their ute!), and others can make a request to loan it for the duration of their project.

Sharing what we have and don’t need is the absolute embodiment of community spirit.

The other thing bugging me as I wandered the streets of my up-and-coming neighbourhood with its new housing developments was the enormous amount of waste and surplus materials being thrown away. After a little more investigating, it turns out Australia is awash with demolition materials from knock-downs, over-ordered supplies for new builds, and quality hard rubbish being discarded by the ‘time for shiny new’ crowd. Surely rescuing and upcycling these items for use in renovation projects would remove a significant amount of still-useable material from the waste stream and reduce our contribution to environmentally devastating landfill.

Taking the idea of Blitzes, combined with a tool library and a materials rescue service, and adding workshops and events, plus access to a female-friendly community of DIYers and trusted tradies, I felt like I’d stumbled on a winning idea that solves a load of different problems at once. Individual challenges and society-wide problems could be tackled by the community, together.

I put the idea out into the world and quickly discovered that people loved the RenoBlitz concept. I set about creating a website, starting a Facebook group and seeking out partners to make it happen. Being that this all started with my own personal dilemma, I had a ready-made pilot project location awaiting some RenoBlitzing. Women in the western suburbs of Melbourne had begun signing up to be involved, and I worked on a plan to cover off the logistical issues. Move out and then Blitz in one go? Or do it room by room? Perhaps trade by trade? Decisions, decisions….

From the beginning I opted for the tagline ‘For women, By women…and the men who support them’.

Traditionally being shut out of these male-dominated industries, it can be tough being a woman dealing with a tradesperson. You get treated like an idiot, taken for a ride, cop a baked-in sexism tax, or feel silly for asking too many questions you’re supposed to know by osmosis. Being female-friendly was going to be critical to giving women the confidence to take up their tools and have a go at something they may have never tried before. For some, discovering the difference between a spanner and a wrench represented a learning curve, so being encouraged and supported to take that journey was going to require a special cohort of trusted tradies. Men were welcome, but they have to be the kinds of men who want to raise women up.

Have you ever heard of lady tradies?

It’s probably one of those terms that some women loathe, like ‘female comedian’ or ‘mum-preneur’, but for me it speaks to the fact that there just aren’t that many women on the tools, going through trade school and starting their own businesses. Nevertheless, I quickly discovered that those who do are 1) very supportive of other women (having broken through the glass ceiling themselves) and 2) are absolutely kick-ass at what they do!

I managed to track down women working in some key renovation trades, and reached out to them to see if they wanted in. Teaching others what you know is a whole different skill set to doing the thing that you know, but it is at the core of empowering women to take up DIY and renovation. Apart from the obvious electrical and plumbing tasks(which Australian safety regulations demand sit pretty exclusively with the professionals), up-skilling others is how we’re going to create change and help people to help themselves.

Slowly these incredible business woman are coming out the woodwork, finding time in their busy schedules (they all seem to have very successful businesses — people love a woman’s touch it seems), and signing up to be part of the RenoBlitz Trusted Tradie network.

Juggling multiple balls at once, I am still nutting out some of the thornier issues (OH&S, insurance, the business model sweet spot). One of the trickiest of them all though is funding. There are costs associated with setting up any business, and despite being a community-driven social enterprise, RenoBlitz is no different. Following a successful pilot, I’d love to see RenoBlitz become a co-operative; that is, owned by its members. Until then though, most government funding is only available to incorporated associations. No doubt there are very good reasons for this criteria, but it definitely represents a barrier to getting off the ground. While talk of a circular economy, waste reduction, community engagement and a ‘pink recovery’ is on everybody’s lips, sadly too few grants put money where the mouth is for great ideas with huge potential…and the wrong legal structure.

Imagine my delight then to discover a NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) Bright Ideas Grant program offering $20k! I met the eligibility requirements. Woo hoo! The application process entailed submitting a one page business plan — using the exact same format as one I’d already completed. Oh the luck! And it closes…..um, yesterday. (Sad face)

In fact I decided to apply anyhow, taking the approach that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Unfortunately for me, the NAWIC Bright Ideas Grant receives more applications than it can handle and being late was a definite disqualifier. I guess there’s always next year.

I am still on the lookout for ways to help finance RenoBlitz to meet those startup costs while we trial the program. In the meantime, we’re holding online events and scheduling in-person workshops, providing educational resources and advice to our Blitzers, adding to our referral network of trusted tradies, and getting ducks in a row ready to RenoBlitz our very first home.

Know a great female tiler you could recommend?

If you’re keen to learn more, or you’re in greater Melbourne (or not-too-distant regional Victoria), come and check out what were up to at renoblitz.mystrikingly.com, where you can register your interest, sign up to our mailing list, or send us a message.

Reframing what we value — a world which is just, sustainable, and works for all people and planet Earth. Join the conversation!

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