By John Pankhurst
We build big homes in Canada. A new single-detached house in 2013 was about 2,000 square feet on average, according to the Canadian Home Builders’ Association (CHBA). In Ontario the average was 2,200 square feet. It hasn’t always been like this. Did you know that in 1945 the average house in Canada was 818 square feet? Yet while houses have become ever bigger and more expensive, the number of people living in a household has fallen from an average of 4.3 in 1945 to only 2.5 in 2011, according to Statistics Canada.
The numbers point to a degree of excess in our lifestyles. A Millennial couple today, both working and receiving good incomes, can expect to spend a considerable portion of their lives paying off a monster mortgage on their new home. This may affect their ability to meet needs in other areas of their lives, as well as their ability to invest for retirement.
The financial stress of owning a big house can cause a great deal of personal distress. And what happens when things go wrong – a job is lost, or a relationship fails? Except for the very affluent, it is hardly a common sense option. Although they may have vast, opulently-fitted interior spaces, single-detached houses tend to be jammed tightly together in high-density suburban developments. The compact external spaces can entail a lack of privacy and quiet enjoyment of the premises – the same inconveniences as those of condominiums and apartments. Overall quality of life is lacking here.
Does owning a dream house really justify the costs, both financial and personal? Not everyone thinks so. Take the recent interest in tiny houses. These homes of under 500 square feet appeal to those who like the idea of living with less use of resources. The mortgage (if one is needed at all) can quickly be paid off. But few homeowners seem able to live in them; after a while the houses are sold or rented out. Not only are they impractical for most people’s needs, but for a family living in their cramped quarters it is stressful and unhealthy. A less extreme option than big or tiny homes are medium-sized semi-detached houses, row houses, and town houses. New houses were about 1,400 square feet on average in Canada in 2013, according to the CHBA. But, although better suited to city living than big houses, they too come with a hefty mortgage and lack privacy.
None of the above types of housing meets the need for a balanced, sensible option where quality of life is not compromised and the stress of homeowning is minimized. Isn’t there a better way? North Grenville’s Rob Lunan has been asking himself this question for some time. He set out to explore how space – both interior and exterior – could best be put to use to achieve these aims. He came up with some solutions. Build a low-density development of only eight freehold houses per acre of serviced land. It will look much like a village, with tree-lined streets and a central community hall. Provide spacious individual lots creating buffer zones between neighbouring houses to increase homeowners’ privacy and quiet enjoyment of their premises and offering ample space for a garden…or even an orchard.
Design single-detached small houses with spacious interiors featuring nine foot ceilings and plenty of natural lighting. Allocate the 1,100-plus square feet of living space in the most efficient way possible, providing three large bedrooms, a living room, an open-concept kitchen and two bathrooms, but eliminating the basement and garage. Maximize the energy-efficiency of the houses: passive solar heating – in conjunction with correctly-placed windows, good insulation, and an airtight design – supplies 50-80% of winter heating needs, while natural hot-air venting cuts electricity costs in the summertime.
Its modest size and efficient allocation of interior space reduce the capital cost of the house and make it affordable. The high energy-efficiency will bring about big savings in the heating bill (“if you end up paying $1000 less each year this adds up to a great savings over the years,” says Rob). Property taxes should also be lower. Yet living space is enough for a couple with two or three children. The design features of the house in combination with the big lot (and the external spaces of the village) will create an ambience of spaciousness, light and quiet, offering a good overall quality of life. The following objections may be raised:
1. “The houses have no basement or garage”. Rob considers both dispensable. Eliminating them will save thousands of dollars in maintenance costs!
2. “Aren’t small houses, like tiny houses, just too small and impractical to live in? This can damage family relationships.” These houses are much bigger than tiny houses. There will be no stress of coping with tiny interior spaces, no need to fiddle with ingenious tables which turn into beds, and the like. As long as family members take care to act considerately, relationships should not be affected. But this requirement applies to inhabitants of all homes, regardless of size!
3. “There won’t be room for all our possessions.” Although they will offer plenty of storage space, the houses are not suited for hoarders or clutterbugs, says Rob. They are designed for those who appreciate a simple lifestyle.
4. “A village of small houses cannot be built in a land-scarce city.” True. To build a land-intensive development like this, it has to be located in a mixed rural/urban municipality like North Grenville. It’s not for committed urbanites. But Rob plans to locate his village close to shops and schools.
Will Rob’s ideas come together to offer a better housing solution, everything considered? The tremendous interest generated by his January 20, 2016 article in The NG Times indicates he just might have found a winning concept. Although we do not hear much in the media about small houses, a new trend could take hold in the coming years, with homes based on Rob’s prototype being built across the country.
As for tiny houses, maybe we should build some to rent out to our homeless people. They could pay in kind for their accommodation by cleaning streets and sidewalks.