Liv­ing large

...in a small house

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - By Pa­trick Langston

OT­TAWA — If small is the new nor­mal in hous­ing, as some ex­perts sug­gest, a 120-year-old for­mer barn in Ot­tawa is pos­i­tively fu­tur­is­tic. Gail McEach­ern’s house be­gan life in the 1880s as a hay barn, mor­phed into a black­smith’s shop, turned into a corner store, and now serves as her home and of­fice. Twelve feet wide, it to­tals just 600 square feet.

McEach­ern bought her tiny home in 2004. She sub­se­quently con­verted the garage into a small bed­room-bath­room-kitch­enette unit at­tached to the orig­i­nal home by a walk­way, but the ad­di­tion is used only by guests.

“I’m op­posed to large homes,” says McEach­ern, who owns Tran­si­tions in Liv­ing, which co-or­di­nates house­hold moves for se­niors. “There’s the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of ex­tra en­ergy for heat­ing. It’s a tremen­dous waste of space that peo­ple just walk through.”

What’s more, big­ger homes cre­ate a sense of iso­la­tion, she says, with own­ers hav­ing to cre­ate lit­tle pock­ets of cosi­ness they could have acquired by buy­ing small in the first place. Be­sides, she adds, who needs all the ex­tra house­work that goes with a large home.

With an in­evitable en­ergy crunch com­ing down the pipe, soar­ing land costs and other fac­tors in play, smaller homes — though per­haps not quite as tiny as McEach­ern’s — loom large on the hori­zon, say many.

It’s al­ready hap­pen­ing with ur­ban con­dos which are clock­ing in at as lit­tle as 300 square feet.

“Ev­ery­one’s re­cal­i­brat­ing,” says Mar­i­anne Cusato. She’s the Florid­abased de­signer of the 1,771-square­foot, two-storey Home for the New Econ­omy that made such a splash at the In­ter­na­tional Home Builders Show in Las Ve­gas ear­lier this year.

Some­one who would have bought a 3,000-square-foot home is buy­ing 2,400; peo­ple who would have bought 2,400 are go­ing for 1,600 or 1,700. Statis­tics seem to agree. In the U.S., ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Home Builders, the av­er­age size of a new home in 1978 was 1,750 square feet. By 2008, that had mush­roomed to 2,520 square feet. Then, last year, for the first time since 1982, the size fell to 2,480 square feet, al­though the col­lapse of the coun­try’s hous­ing mar­ket did make 2009 an un­usual year.

U.S. builders, how­ever, say they plan to fo­cus on smaller homes this year. Canada does not col­lect such statis­tics, but where the ele­phant leads, we of­ten fol­low.

Cusato sells plans for her Home for the New Econ­omy for $750 at www. NewE­con­o­my­Home.com. She’s also had so much suc­cess with the Ka­t­rina Cot­tage — the low-cost, 350-square­foot mid­get orig­i­nally de­signed for vic­tims of hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina — that she’s cur­rently work­ing up a slightly larger ver­sion for colder cli­mates.

Ac­cord­ing to Cusato, ever-big­ger homes, ap­peal­ing for their airi­ness and light, were a re­ac­tion to the of­ten­dark ranch homes and boxy split-lev­els of the 1950s and 60s. How­ever, low en­ergy costs, cheap land and a per­verse hunger to keep up with Jone­ses meant that, be­fore you could say Topsy, homes were be­com­ing un­wieldy cas­tles in far-flung com­mu­ni­ties. The only way to dif­fer­en­ti­ate McMan­sions, she says, is by adding on more.

“The cold-wa­ter shower of the 2008 fi­nan­cial melt­down, cou­pled with grow­ing con­cern about the end of cheap oil for both heat­ing and com­mut­ing, mean that’s all chang­ing,” Cusato says.

She thinks the 1,200-and 1,300-square-foot homes most of us grew up in the 1950s could make a come­back. You take the mass­ing of those 1950s houses and re­ar­range it to add mod­ern kitchens and bath­rooms and clos­ets — and yes, it could work.

But shrink too fast, says John Her­bert, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Greater Ot­tawa Home Builders As­so­ci­a­tion, and there’d prob­a­bly be a re­volt by the pop­u­la­tion be­fore you ever hit 1,200 square feet.

De­spite that, he sees smaller homes on the hori­zon.

“We’ve been talk­ing about this for 20 years, but I be­lieve we’ve reached the point where we’ll see it start to hap­pen within a year or two.”

Among other rea­sons, he cites ris­ing in­ter­est rates, the cur­tail­ment of ur­ban sprawl in cities and a new em­pha­sis among buy­ers on qual­ity fin­ishes rather than sim­ple square footage.

John Ken­ward, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the Cana­dian Home BuildersG As­so­ci­a­tion, points out ev­ery­thing from de­mo­graph­ics to re­gional vari­ances in land avail­abil­ity will in­flu­ence house sizes.

“Is there a mar­ket for smaller homes? Yes. But it’s not as though we’ve got some sort of golden rule that says all homes are get­ting smaller,” he says.

Small bun­ga­lows in the 1,200-square-foot range, of­ten aimed mostly at the sin­gles mar­ket, are start­ing to crop up in cities across Canada, but these seem like be­he­moths next to dwellings from Tum­ble­weed Tiny House Com­pany in the Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­nity of Boyes Hot Springs.

Avail­able ei­ther in plan or com­pleted form, and rang­ing from 65 to 837 square feet, they can be seen at www. tum­ble­weed­houses.com. The small­est are on wheels, mak­ing them more like trail­ers, and fea­ture two-burner stoves, a bar fridge and a loft bed­room ac­ces­si­ble by lad­der.

Cost­ing any­where from about $35 to $200 per square foot, these and other very small homes are still a niche mar­ket. The Small House So­ci­ety (www. resourcesforlife.com/small-house-so­ci­ety) will bring you up to speed with a news­let­ter, links to books and other re­sources.

While you’re brows­ing, have a look at www.thelit­tlehouse.ca. The web­site is ded­i­cated to Toronto’s small­est house, a 312-square-foot shrimp built in 1912. Newly ren­o­vated and en­ergy-ef­fi­cient, the me­dia dar­ling is still in­hab­ited.

Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect Sarah Su­sanka is gen­er­ally cred­ited as a pi­o­neer in the smaller-home move­ment. Author of the im­mensely pop­u­lar se­ries Not So Big Homes, Su­sanka ad­vo­cates trim­ming one-third from the size and spend­ing the ex­tra money on qual­ity fin­ishes. Like oth­ers, she says the hous­ing in­dus­try has been slow to re­spond to the eco­nomic melt­down, but is fi­nally get­ting the mes­sage that small has gone main­stream.

— Postmedia News

Above and be­low: Gail McEach­ern lives big, be­low, in her charm­ing 600-square-foot home in Ot­tawa.

Khoa Dang, who lives in a 515-square-foot condo in down­town Ot­tawa, feels his sub­ur­ban friends have too many pos­ses­sions,

es­pe­cially when he checks out their packed garages. ‘They have no room for their cars.’

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