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Be It Ever So Humble

December 27, 2013

 

It would be impossible to not notice that houses in Canada have become increasingly larger over the last few decades.  Average house size in this country has ballooned from about 1200 square feet in 1983 to just under 2200 square feet today.  The real estate industry has done a masterful job of selling the idea that bigger is better. Large houses are a status symbol so seductive that for many, even retirement homes are a step up in size.  Everyone seems to want as much house as they can possibly afford.

Fueling this trend is a kind of fortress mentality that has followed on the heels of our loss of sense of community, inclining people to want a home that incorporates every need, including multiple forms of entertainment.  In response to this, the building industry churns out larger and larger but less space-efficient homes with less design generosity, creating a sterility that leads people to mistakenly think what’s missing is more space.

Along with this movement toward larger houses have come skyrocketing prices—from about $75,000 in 1983 to almost $400,000 today—and an increase in environmental burden.  Larger homes consume more resources, both to build and to operate.  Although one would expect an economy of scale as house size increased—that material use per square foot of floor area would drop as the size of the house increased—that hasn’t proven to be the case. Contractors incorporate more features and more complex geometries into larger homes, more than wiping out the increased material efficiency that might be expected.  Though unsurprisingly larger houses require more energy to heat and cool them, again the increase is not proportional.  Longer runs for ducting and hot water pipes bump up heat losses, increasing utility costs.

The social impact of the trend toward larger houses is significant.  Rising house prices combined with stalled wages have pushed many to search for less expensive homes, the market reacting to the resulting supply/demand imbalance with a sharp rise in the prices of low-end houses, driving many, especially young people and low-income seniors, out of the market entirely.  Even homes which a few years ago would have been seen as at the end of their life and therefore could be bought for a song, now command high prices, routinely snapped up for renovation and conversion to rental properties.

As I consider my options in anticipation of my eventual return to Canada, I find that I am among those who have been priced out of the conventional housing market.  In fact, the rental market being tied to the cost of home ownership, I anticipate that I will have access only to the bottom end of that market.  I don’t relish the idea of apartment living.   Older trailers and modular homes, as I see it, are poor value for the money.  So what is the alternative?  What is it that I would like?

Living in Haiti has radically changed my outlook on life.  Or perhaps more accurately, it has brought to the forefront values I have long held but not always lived.  The world has at times been a sly dream merchant, convincing me to trade my values for its promises.  Haiti opened my eyes to just how hollow those promises were.  I have come to realize I don’t need a lot of things, and have learned to resist capitalism’s pressure to want more, to focus on what I don’t have.  I now see just how much my possessions, things that cost me dearly and all too quickly fell apart or were forgotten, weighted down my life, cunningly usurping the throne and becoming my masters.  The little I still own is a millstone to me.  In Haiti I learned to live much closer to my actual needs, to trust the Lord for “my daily bread” and not look to building bigger barns. With few possessions, I need far less house.

A smaller, simpler, greener way of life that reduces my use of the world’s resources to something closer to my fair share appeals to me.  (Isn’t reduce the first of the 3 R’s of the Environment?)  A life that dovetails with my present value system, that implies shalom, appeals to me.  So does staying debt-free and having more time and freedom to pursue my life’s passions.  Moreover, my life has always betrayed a bent toward nonconformity, and again the road less travelled, to live in a minimalist way, is attractive to me.

So what has caught my interest is the tiny home movement.  Although some of the smallest home plans, at about 100 square feet, I find too extreme for my tastes.  I could see myself being quite comfortable in 250 to 300 square feet plus a small deck.  The key is a plan that is reflective of how I want to live, and through paying meticulous attention to detail uses every inch of space efficiently.

I have seen several plans that I could easily adapt to my needs.  These homes are not downsized versions of larger homes.  Utilizing engineering worthy of a Chinese puzzle, they are fitted out with full-size appliances and fixtures, and where necessary trade off size for ingenious detailing and high-quality materials.  Incorporating features that create the illusion of space, these houses offer comfort within the confines of a small floor plan.  The innovative storage purposed into every available nook and cranny is nothing short of amazing.  These tiny homes are extremely space efficient, energy efficient and very affordable to boot.

But despite the low construction and operational costs of a tiny house, there are some very big impediments to owning one.  Land is expensive, and outside of urban areas lot size can run to as much as 80 acres.  Consequently, the house becomes the least expensive part of the equation.  Moving further from cities, land gets cheaper, but there are fewer services, and I would be far from my uncompromisingly urbanite family. Access roads and water and sewer hookups have little to do with house size, and can be very expensive.

Banks consider tiny houses to be non-traditional assets not having good resale value, so are unlikely to extend standard mortgage loans for their construction.  But the kicker is the regulations—zoning laws, restrictive covenants (clauses in deeds as to how the owner can use the land) and building codes that impose design standards.  Most municipalities have minimum square footage requirements because they like the higher tax assessments.  Many tiny homes are designed to be built on a trailer chassis, but many municipalities don’t allow trailers.  Some jurisdictions don’t require permits for buildings under 200 square feet, but it is unlikely they would issue an occupancy permit for such a structure.

I don’t believe the arguments that tiny homes bring down property values hold up.  To illustrate, let me contrast two neighbourhoods with which I am familiar.  Silver Star Village, the upscale ski resort near Vernon, BC, is a playful hodgepodge of architectural styles, a riot of colours, homes of various sizes elbow-to-elbow.  The effect, in my opinion, is delightful.  I have never been there, but pictures I have seen of the vibrant fishing villages of Newfoundland capture the same picturesque diversity.

Contrast that to the sight that greets me as I drive the TransCanada Highway past Calgary—vast neighbourhoods of cookie-cutter homes, all within a closely regulated size range, all painted from the same monochromatic palette.  To say it is boring is being generous.  (Please understand that I don’t wish to disparage Calgary as a whole; I know it has some very appealing housing.)   But the point I am trying to make is that variety can be beautiful.  The fact that there is a small home next to a larger one in Silver Star Village in no way devalues the larger. 

So if the issue is not an aesthetic one, what is it?  Alas, I believe it is fear.  The very idea of a tiny house is different, violating cultural norms, and therein lies the rub.  Canada is, in my opinion, a very conservative country, and conformity is held in high esteem.  Conversely, non-conformity is frowned upon at best and frequently feared and vociferously resisted.   Many simply cannot understand why anyone would choose to reject the values of capitalism and its handmaiden, consumerism.  I have heard opinions that anyone wanting a very small home is just trying to evade taxation and get around zoning laws.  Poverty offends many, and voluntary poverty (by Canadian standards) they find even more offensive, as it calls into question the things they hold dear.  Often those with conservative views demand that governments enact harsh laws to enforce conformity to whatever “norm” they wish to uphold. 

Many owners of large homes don’t want a tiny house next door, or even in their community, fearing it would devalue their McMansions or perhaps open their neighbourhood to a lower class of tenant. There seems to be common agreement among the 70% fortunate enough to own homes that people who want to live in small spaces (or are forced to by economics) are supposed to live in apartments—which, unlike houses, can readily be built with very few size restrictions.  This to me is a troubling inconsistency in the law that smacks of economic apartheid.  

But really this is a moot point.  Why would I want to build my tiny house next to a huge home that would block out the light and give me a view of a wall?  My issue is that tiny houses are not permitted anywhere.  Opponents believe they have the right to exercise their biases over entire municipalities.  I do not dispute their right to a luxurious home, so why should they limit my choice, preventing me from building what would be workable for me?  Why should they be able to force me into an apartment that does not suit me and would in short order cost more than owning a tiny house?

A very practical solution, could an accommodating municipality be found, would be to build my tiny house in concert with a few like-minded people.  The houses could be serviced by a single well and septic system.  Perhaps even a supplementary solar power system might be a viable option.  An additional feature of the “community” could be a shared service building with laundry facilities, storage lockers, a workshop and space for items like a lawn mower, snow blower and garden tools held in common.

All I really need in a home is shelter from the weather, a simple kitchen to make a simple meal, space for a chair in which to sit and read, somewhere to clean up, and a bed to lay my head when day is done.  That is more than many in this world have, and any more than that would be for me excess.

Surely there is something wrong with a society that denies me (and many others) the opportunity to enjoy the dignity and benefits of home ownership on the basis of house size.

 

May I a small house and large garden have;
And a few friends,
And many books, both true.


― Abraham Cowley

 

 

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