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Small summer homes

We’ve found we are getting out and about much more this summer — and I know why.  It’s because we’re living in such a small house.  We used to spend most of our Saturdays cleaning up our two-bedroom, two-bathroom carpeted home.  Then would come a weekly shop. But now our cleaning routine is over in less than an hour, and since our fridge can’t hold a week’s worth of groceries we’ve replaced the big shopping trips with smaller, more frequent ones. So now we have a lot more time on our weekends and we’re spending it outside; at the summer festivals around town, free concerts, events in local parks, farmers’ markets. That’s a lot different than my childhood weekends, when the whole family headed up to beautiful Christina Lake and the cabin our Dad built on the water. Christina I often think of those days and wish I could have another cottage on a lake or tucked into the woods, just a small one of course! Thanks to Tiny House Talk for giving me some ideas. If we wanted to try it on a temporary basis, we could rent one of these Tiny Houses available for vacations. Like this adorable gingerbread house in a grove. small-cottage-in-washington-600x400   It’s right in our neighbourhood.  If we wanted to go a little farther we could stay in this fairy-tale cottage in Austria. small-Austrian-cottage   But if we wanted to build our own vacation home, why not put up a pre-fab dome house? lexa-dome-tiny-home-600x416   It’s got lots of charm, and a doable floor plan. lexa_26_ft_dia_540_sq_ft_1_floor_2 I can just see it sitting beside a pond, or nestled into a copse of trees.  The dome roof would be great for the heavy snows we get in the local mountains. As sweet as this pre-fab is, and as convenient, we might want to go completely Hobbit! In New Zealand, someone has built a home out of earth. Earth-dome They have big plans for making it larger.  For more information, see this:

Got cool? Five ways we’re keeping cool this summer

For a while we toyed with the idea of getting Air Conditioning for our laneway home.  But we decided no for two reasons (well, three if you include the cost).

  1. It’s not in keeping with our goal of using less energy.
  2. It only gets super hot in Vancouver for a couple of days a year, and we could work around it.

The living roof actually helps quite a bit.  The plants keep the hot sun from hitting and heating our roof, which makes it a bit cooler inside.  Plus the moisture in the planting medium evaporates during the hot part of the day, which cools it off a bit, too.

Now summer is here and we are finding ways to keep our home as comfortable as possible.


Number 1 is to keep the sun from heating up the interior.  We love it when the morning sun pours into our upper storey where our kitchen and sitting room are.  And the cats love the warm sunny spots on the floor and the furniture.  But that heat sticks around all day.  So we keep our blinds closed on the windows facing East until the sun moves around to the South, then we open the eastern blinds and close the southern blinds*.  That way the furnishings and interior finishes don’t heat up in the first place.

Number 2 is to create some cross-breezes.  The home is designed with windows on all four sides that can open up and catch any breeze available.  Right now we only have screens on the tilt-and-turn windows, so can’t take full advantage of the windows that open out — but we’re getting screens for those windows soon.  We crack them open an inch or so but the bugs want to get in and the cats want to get out so we’ll have to wait for the screens to really open them wide.

Number 3 is fans.  We have two fans going all the time just moving the air around in the bedroom and the studio/den downstairs.  When the sun goes down and the air is cooler outside we turn on the bathroom and the stove fans and keep the windows open to pull that air inside.  If it gets really hot we can soak fabrics (T-shirts are the perfect size) in water and put them over the standing fans to spread cool air throughout the rooms.

Number 4 is not bringing more heat into the place with our cooking.  Luckily we both love salads and cold soups and DH loves to grill on his new natural-gas fuelled barbecue so we are keeping the cooking to a minimum.

Number 5 is drinking cool drinks.  That may seem a little obvious, but it’s so easy to become dehydrated in the heat.  The other day I was sitting in a nice breeze at the kitchen counter, quite comfortable, and I looked over at the thermostat to see what temperature it was.  88F!  31C!  I didn’t notice the heat because I was so comfortable.  But I was sweating like crazy, the water evaporating as soon as it got to my skin.  I needed cool water and lots of it.

And here’s a bonus:  Take cool showers.  Take two or three if you want, but I always take one just before bed to cool me off and make it much easier to drift off to sleep.

*(I know about Copernicus and the whole heliocentrism thing  but it’s easier to say the sun moves rather than the earth moves.)

Any hints on how to keep cool without AC?  Spill!

Learning the lessons of house ownership

You know how when you come home from vacation and you just can’t get into the groove again?  How you don’t want to sit in an office on a lovely summer afternoon but would rather be on a beach or in a garden with a cool glass at your side and a good book in your hand?

Since my return from jolly old Britain it is taking a bit to kick start the old work ethic.

But I haven’t just been sitting around!

First, a little background.

Before DH and I moved into our laneway we owned a condo.  And before that we were renters.  And it doesn’t take long to forget how much work it takes to keep a place in good shape when those problems are taken care of by strata boards and landlords. But now we are happy to embrace the work that will keep our house looking great — and we are also happy to lend our time and our sturdy arms to the folks in the main house when they want to spruce up their place (especially since we’re looking at it a lot of the time).

DD and DSIL are proud homeowners, and they like to keep their place looking good.  The first thing they did when they moved in about six years ago was to replace the rickety back stairs with a nice deck.  They hired a contractor and took out the permits and did the deed properly.  But they were badly advised when it came to the finish on the wood.  It was a kind of varnish that cracked and peeled almost immediately.

So they tried to remove it with a nasty chemical.  And by sanding.  And by sanding again.  But it still didn’t look that great.


On Canada Day we all got out with various sanding methods and went at it one more time.  We took off as much of the surface as we could.  Then we ate barbecued chicken and drank beer because — hey!  Canada Day, eh?

Then last afternoon/evening we all gathered again to stain said deck.  Bad weather had kept us from doing it last weekend, we needed time to put on two coats with a drying time between, but both coats had to be applied within a 24 hour period.  So we started in the late afternoon, and stained and stained and stained and stained.  Then we broke for dinner.  Then we repeated the process.  And I’ve got to say it looks a lot better:


The stain will also be used on those posts beneath the deck, on the table and benches you see, and on the fence and the roof of the shed.  So I see a lot of staining in my future.  But it makes a huge difference in the appearance of the deck.

The railing before:


The railing after:


Makes me want to get out the paint brushes and start on the fence, but I will hold back until my muscles recover.

Staining is hard work!  But the nice surprise for me was to find that it’s all water-based now and clean up was a breeze.

Heritage homes — lovely and livable

We were very, very lucky on our trip to the United Kingdom, not just in the fabulous weather, but because we could stay with our lovely relatives — and they live in lovely homes.

It’s rare to be able to step foot inside one actual home when visiting a foreign country, and we were able to see lots of them.  We also toured some “stately homes” with the rest of the tourists, but it was the privilege of sitting and taking tea in a real Georgian sitting room, or sleeping in a true Edwardian bedroom, or enjoying the garden of an old English cottage that made the trip even more special.

The first home we stayed in was that of our first-cousin-once-removed in Edinburgh.  Naomi’s was the oldest home we stayed in, built before 1800.  The building had once been a brewery with the bottom two floors for commerce and the third floor, where Naomi’s flat is located, made into a comfortable home for the proprietors.  At one point the one apartment was made into 3, sometime in the 19th century, but it’s been re-converted to one unit.  So some of the features were changed plus a modern kitchen and bathroom were added.  But a lot of the original Georgian decor remains.


Here’s me standing outside the front door to the building.  The stairs are located just behind this wall, stone stairs to the third floor, then concrete ones up to the more-recently modernized fourth floor.  Naomi’s is on the third floor.

NOTE:  We were staying in a private home.  The place wasn’t staged for photographs, it was set up for living (and Naomi lives a very active life).  So I won’t be showing whole rooms, just snippets of the features that made the rooms truly Georgian.

Here’s a Googled photo that illustrates what you can expect to see in a Georgian Room.


The Georgian builders and decorators revered symmetry, so the fireplace is centred on one wall.  The windows are very wide and high, coming within inches of the ceiling and set deep into the thick walls.  The panels at each side of the windows are actually shutters which can be closed over the windows at night (although most homes don’t use the shutters any more and have draperies instead).

All the rooms are beautifully proportioned, with high ceilings and a feeling of spaciousness.

Naomi’s apartment is split very nicely by a wide corridor, with transoms above the doors allowing some light in from the rooms on either side. Since the flat takes up the whole of the third floor, she has windows on three sides and a lot of light flooding in.


Here’s one of the transoms — a work of art by itself.  And the beautiful plaster crown moulding along the top of the walls.  The Georgians also tried to bring sculpture into their homes, and that is reflected in the ornate plasterwork you see here on this arch in the apartment.



Imagine living in all this beauty all the time!  We were so lucky to spend just a few days in this wonderful Georgian home.

I have been a-wand’ring!

I’ve just been unpacking from a trip to the UK I took with my sister.  I was going to write a few posts from the other side of the pond — at least that was the plan — but I was too busy seeing the sights and hanging out in museum gift shops and eating.

The British have made the daily ritual of eating into a real art.  I know, right?  English food is supposed to be bland and unimaginative.  But it’s not.  It’s really good.

And they manage to fit it all into five meals a day.

We begin at breakfast.  I only had one “full English breakfast”*.  The rest of the time we had muesli or toast.  Or muesli and toast. Plus tea.  I really got hooked on tea in Britain, it’s always good no matter where you get it.  And sometimes it comes with a little pot of hot water for refills.

Mid-morning we took a break from shopping and sight-seeing with “elevenses”.  Tea and a scone or a tea cake (muffin).  that gave you the shot of energy you needed to last until lunch.


Luncheon was a lovely meal that could be a selection of cheeses and sausages, or a prawn sandwich (with RoseMarie sauce), or soup, or any combination thereof.  Sometimes we would have a nice lager-and-lime to quench our thirst. Sandwiches would come on white or brown bread or sometimes a bap (soft bun). But you could also get a black-pudding panini for a change. “Tomato sauce” is just ketchup. “Brown sauce” is like ketchup, but brown. Watch out for the mustard, though, their brown mustard is tasty but mild.  It’s the bright yellow mustard (that looks just like the innocent French’s mustard we slather on hot dogs) that’s the real killer.  It will bring tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat.  It’s very, very hot.

Then, laden with parcels and with our feet worn to nubs we would wend our way back to the home our relatives were graciously sharing with us.  Just in time for tea. That could be small sandwiches, or just scones or biscuits (cookies) or Battenburg cake or just a nice slice of seedy cake.  That way you wouldn’t be starving because dinner would often not be served before 8:30 or 9.

And what a supper that would be!  Wonderful salads, entrees, veggies and sides. More ways to cook potatoes than you can imagine!  Wine!  Cheeses to finish!  And of course, pudding.  “Pudding” refers to dessert, whatever it is, even pudding.

Then we would toddle off to bed.  I needn’t tell you that while I was packing on the pounds (which are measured in 14-pound units called stones) my svelte relatives were managing to maintain their youthful figures. I had to come back before I was charged overweight on my flight home.

I found new foods to enjoy, and not just haggis and black pudding!  Rocket, a green leafy vegetable.  Courgettes turned out to be young zucchini.  Frozen food was very good.  And my cousin, who is quite house bound, could order her groceries online and have them delivered to her door.

I know this isn’t a food blog, and I’ll be writing more about the houses we visited.  Napolean said that an army marches on its stomach.  Our small force certainly lived up to that.

*Fried egg, fried mushrooms, fried tomAHto, fried bread, sausage, bacon, black pudding.

How can we save more of our heritage homes?

Vancouver already has the screwiest housing market in the world.  Hyperbole?  Empty derelict houses are sitting on million-dollar lots in ordinary working-class neighbourhoods.  Huge houses and luxury apartments sit empty most of the year because of absentee investor owners.  Rental vacancy rate of less than 1%.  Housing costs beyond many salaries.

In this story on the city’s effort to save pre-1940 homes, the people who bought a Shaughnessy home for $4.6 million and who have it on the market for $7 million find it too small for their needs.

“They just think the building is not livable,” Liang said. “They are now looking for a larger property.”

Meanwhile city dwellers wring their hands and mourn the loss of heritage houses that originally made the neighbourhood so attractive; demolished so that enormous monster houses can take their place.


The problem affects neighbourhoods, almost exclusively on the west side, where old discretionary zoning and density rules are encouraging developers to raze smaller homes to build massive buildings.

In the first six months of 2014 there have been nearly 1,000 applications for demolition permits, an increase of 20 per cent over previous years…. Many of those involve pre-1940s buildings that don’t use all of their allowed yard setbacks or building heights.

And there are no easy fixes.

I would have to argue with the statement that the problem is almost exclusive to the west side of the city.  There are plenty of charming old homes in the Grandview and Sunrise areas that are being replaced by much larger structures.

The Vancouver Sun story lists some ways that Vancouver City government is hoping to save more heritage homes.  A planned moratorium on demolition permits for houses in Shaughnessy; a requirement that 90% of the demolished home’s materials be salvaged or recycled.

The moratorium on demolition permits may work in an area like Shaughnessy, but couldn’t be used city-wide.  Who would like to see their property value plummet because any buyer could not replace the over-70 year old structure with a new one (while your neighbour’s more recently built home could be smashed and trucked away to reveal that tender, juicy city lot just ready for redevelopment)?

But if someone were to ask me (and what is a blog for if not to answer questions no one has asked?) I would suggest a more-carrot-and-less-stick approach by the city to encourage the retention of heritage homes.

  • Right now it can take months or longer to designate a house a heritage building. That process should be sped up.
  • There are only four designated heritage areas:  Chinatown, Gastown, Shaughnessy and Yaletown. Any area where most of the buildings are over 70 years old should be designated a heritage area, including Sunrise, Strathcona, Kerrisdale and Kitsilano.
  • Tax breaks from the city would encourage developers to maintain older houses.
  • A relaxation of certain housing regulations would allow some heritage homes to be maintained.

Does anyone else have any ideas?


The Vancouver Heritage Foundation Heritage Homes Tour

Last Sunday found us up nice and early in preparation to hitting the road for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation Heritage Homes Tour.

It’s something I’ve been promising myself I’d do, but always put it off.  This year, though, we were able to get it together and June 1 found us up, fed, dressed (with easily removable shoes) and water bottles at hand we headed off to the first house on the tour: Casa Mia.


Casa Mia is the fabled house built by the Reifel family.  It sits on Mansion Row on South West Marine Drive and yes, everything you’ve heard about it is true.  There is a ballroom on the basement level with gold-leaf walls and ceiling and a sprung dance floor.  The walls of the playroom were hand painted with Snow White decorations by Disney artists brought in for the job.  The rooms are beautiful, opulent, luxurious.  The bathrooms are incredible. The men’s powder room by the ballroom has black fixtures! The lady’s has gold plated faucets!  As a piece of OTT decorating (and the life that demanded it) it’s a prime example.  One that will probably be changing in the future, as it’s currently being considered for a care home.  This was our only chance to see this building, and thanks to the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, we did.

By the way, kudos squared to the Foundation for the organization of the tour.  The route was good — from Casa Mia though houses 1 to 10, the guide told us what to look for and expect at each home (and where we could find public restrooms along the way), the volunteers were helpful and friendly, the homes were all lovely, and there was even a food truck mid-way through to make sure you didn’t collapse from hunger.

Still, intrepid explorers though we were, we found it almost too overwhelming and skipped one of the three storybook homes on the tour.

We saw this one -- it was terrific.

We saw this one — it was terrific.

I won’t take you on a room by room recap, there’s lots of info at the Vancouver Heritage Foundation site.  Here’s the highlights I took away:

  • It’s easy to think of the lovely west-side homes in Kerrisdale, Shaughnessy and Kitsilano as heritage homes, but there are many gorgeous heritage properties on the east side in transitional neighbourhoods like Strathcona, Grandview, Mount Pleasant and Sunrise that have not always been well maintained but should definitely be preserved and respected.
  • It’s still possible to maintain the charming design of an older home while updating it with energy efficient heating and modern bathrooms and kitchens.
  • People love built-in sound systems.  We have one in the laneway because we didn’t have room for speakers on the walls — but lots of people put them in so they won’t have to have ugly speakers out in the open.
  • Take shoes you can easily remove at each home — they didn’t mind bare feet inside so you could wear sandals — but make sure they are comfortable because you may have to walk a couple of blocks from where you can park
  • Mature gardens are so lovely — everyone had beautiful exterior spaces
  • Everyone was respectful of the age of their home — even when the furnishings were modern the interior design reflected the original finishings

How can we maintain these fine old homes?  How can we keep our city neighbourhoods from becoming homogeneous slabs of suburban architecture?  I’ll be thinking — and writing about this.

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