Small is the new big in housing

Posted on 21. Jun, 2010 by in General

By Patrick Langston, The Ottawa Citizen
 

Soaring land costs, the inevitable energy crunch and simple lifestyle choices are making modest living spaces the preferred choice. 

 If small is the new normal in housing, as some experts suggest, a 120 year old former barn in New Edinburgh is positively futuristic.  Gail McEachern’s house on Crichton Street 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, perfect 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 the owner of Ottawa’s 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 that they could have acquired by buying small in the first place. Besides, she adds, who needs all the extra housework that goes with a McMansion?

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.

In fact, it’s already happening with urban condos which, in Ottawa, are now clocking in at as little as 300 square feet.

“Everyone’s recalibrating,” says Marianne Cusato. She’s the Florida-based designer of the 1,771-square-foot, 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’ve bought 2,400 are going for 1,600 or 1,700.”

Statistics seem to agree. In the United States, reports 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.

United States builders, however, say they plan to focus on smaller homes this year. Canada doesn’t 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-square-foot midget originally designed for victims of Hurricane Katrina, that she’s currently working up a slightly larger version for cold weather climates.

According to Cusato, ever-bigger homes, appealing for their airiness and light, were a reaction to the often-dark 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, including Ottawa, and a new emphasis among buyers on quality finishes rather than simple square footage.

John Kenward, chief operating officer of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, points out that 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.”

In Ottawa, builders say small isn’t yet big. Instead, developers are diversifying, which includes constructing some smaller homes, to capture a broader market share, says Kevin O’Shea, director of Ottawa operations for Monarch Homes.

Over at Tamarack, designer Gary Schafer says small bungalows, including the adult lifestyle Cardinal (1,205 square feet, from $399,900) are aimed mostly at the singles market.

Such places 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 a 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 web site 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, she 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.

Living in tight quarters, requires ruthlessness.

“I threw pretty much everything out when I moved in,” says Khoa Dang, who owns a 515-square-foot unit in The Mondrian by Urban Capital on Laurier Avenue. “I grew up in an average sized home and used to keep things like computer cables and mouses (Dang is a network administrator) in case I needed them. But this is a whole different lifestyle.”

To give a sense of space, he’s kept both the colours and furniture light and hung several mirrors. The furniture, some of it Danish, is clean-lined and chic.

When he visits friends in Barrhaven, Dang says, he feels claustrophobic if he glances in their garages. “They have so much stuff, they have no room for their cars.”

Like many others, Dang bought his condo for the downtown lifestyle. Escalating land costs may have forced builders to make those condos ever smaller, but that seems to suit buyers just fine.

“The small, one-bedroom units are always the first to sell,” says Maureen O’Connell, who’s sold condos in Urban Capital’s East Market III, The Mondrian, and Central Phases I and II. Buyers like the well-designed spaces and contemporary feel, she explains, as well as the excellent resale prices. Home theatre speakers nestled in ceilings are among the space-saving ideas she’s seen.

Other Ottawa builders, following the lead of land-constrained cities, including Toronto and New York, are upping the downsizing ante even more.

The 360Lofts, a Surface Developments project at 383 Cumberland St. that sold like hotcakes when it was launched last summer, includes a bachelor model at just under 400 square feet for $187,900. And Centropolis, a 102-unit building by developer Spyro Dimitrakopoulos at the corner of Kent Street and Gladstone, goes a step further with 300-square-foot pods starting at $118,000.

Since Centropolis’ smallest units are bachelor suites, “We’ve used built-in Murphy beds to allow a combination of living and sleeping space,” says the building’s architect David Blakely. Hardwood floors throughout give a sense of more room than would mixing wood and ceramic, which breaks the space up. The bathtub is shorter than usual and the kitchen features a two-burner stove. “We’ve designed it down to the inch instead of the foot,” says Blakely.

Just how small homes in Ottawa will get is anybody’s guess. Barring the collapse of western civilization, however, one thing’s almost certain: most of us will never again live as did the fellow Gail McEachern spotted looking at her house a couple of years ago.

“He told me he was raised with two other children in this space, and that the house was also a store that his parents ran. They had a big steel tub for bathing once a week.”

 

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