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Monthly Archives: December 2013

Time to look backwards — and forward

As I like to remind people (yes, I can be annoying that way), January is named for the Roman god Janus, who could look forward and backwards at the same time.

I think that’s important, and this is about the right time of year to do it.  The hustle and excess of Christmas is over, and we have a few days respite before the hustle and excess of New Year’s Eve.

2013 was a real year of transitions for me and for mine.  As the year began we had to get ready to sell our condo, while we were getting ready to build our laneway, and I was getting over the blow of my mother’s sudden and unexpected death.  Tough times.  But we got through them.

Spring came. We sold our condo.  My father passed away (another emotional blow).

And we broke ground for our house.  Day1.1Everything seemed to take so long!  Waiting for the inspectors, waiting for the suppliers, waiting for utilities connections.  But bit by bit the house went up and we moved in right on schedule. When the footings went in we kept saying “How can we live in such a small space?”

Foot1And we said that again when the foundation walls went in:

Day35Large

 

 

And when the wooden structure was built:

20130711.4

 

We just couldn’t see ourselves and our stuff in such a small space.  But when we moved in it was clear that the place is exactly the right amount of space and roominess that we need, and anything that does not fit in here is just extra stuff that we don’t need.

We love our little home so much.  We are so comfortable.  And we are so happy when friends and family come by and we can show them around.  Everyone says they love the design and the feeling of cosiness, and we have to agree.  It’s also nice that it takes us about 10 minutes to tidy up the place for visitors.

There are still a few deficiencies to be addressed.  But we are super comfortable and find our neighbourhood to be perfect for us.

So what is ahead?  This blog was built to chronicle the building of the laneway home.  And now that is done.

But I still find things to write about.  Our life and our move to a more minimalist lifestyle.  Other small houses, the tiny house movement.  So the blog will go on. (yes, that is Celine Dion you hear in the background).

Besides, laneway housing is still news, as was shown in this recent story in the Toronto Star shows. The Dunn-Roy family finds

“This has been such a fun experience. I absolutely love my little house,” says Dunn-Roy. “It’s functional, it’s forced us to totally declutter and we’re no longer rattling around in that big house.”

And other people are still interested in living the small life.  This architect built a 200-square-foot home.  In Idaho.  By herself! After a divorce and losing her home to foreclosure (sounds like she had kind of an up-and-down year herself —  she broke her back falling off the roof.)

So you’ll be hearing from me.  And I hope I hear from you, too.

Christmas at the laneway house

Back when we had a natural gas fireplace in our condo, I loved to light it when I first got up on a winter morning.  No matter how grey the day it always made me feel better to see the glow. I thought I would miss it, but of course, we adapted to get what we needed.

XmasFire2013

The cable company runs a continuous Yule log that we’ve got going all day.  It looks toasty but it doesn’t make the room uncomfortably warm (as a real fire would).  I’ve even recorded it so we can have it even when the Christmas season is over and we need that little glow in the evenings. Thank you, electric hearth.

Over in the corner with the sectional we’ve put up an IKEA star and I’ve made some covers for our cushions that were a little more festive.

XmasCorner2013

And our Christmas tree?  Well we don’t have room inside for a tree — so we’ve put it out on the deck.

XmasTree2013

We’ve put outdoor lights on a white tree, set on our patio table.  We can see it from our sitting area, and it just adds the right touch of Christmas.  We’ve had some snow and that adds to the seasonal feeling, too. It looks especially nice in the evenings, when the lights glow through the “needles”.

XmasNightTree

We’ve definitely had to cut back on the decorations from when we were living in a larger place, but that’s OK.  We still get a Christmassy feeling, and we are so looking forward to Christmas day, and carrying our casserole (world-famous broccoli cauliflower souffle, recipe a la Susan Mendelson) across the yard to the big celebration, and being able to imbibe without worrying about getting on the road to get back home.  The whole family will be there, including my sister, niece, old friends, and even an ex-spouse.

We have so much to be thankful for this year.  We have this beautiful home that we love so much, and we are so close to the people we love so much.  There have been some tough times, too, and I am missing my parents a lot, but somehow being in this new house with new traditions makes it easier.

And we hope everyone is having the best holiday season ever!

Decorating for a tiny Christmas

Of course Christmas is not tiny — it’s as big as you want to make it!  But finding room for Christmas decorations can be tricky when you have so little space.

Tomorrow I’ll let you know what we’re doing here at the laneway house, but meanwhile here are some clever ideas on how to finesse setting up that massive tree.

You can go all Charlie Brown and get a simple twig or two to represent the tree.

XmasCharlieBrown1

Put it in a container on your table top, or attach it to the wall

XmasCharlieBrown2

Or why bother with the tree at all?  Attach the ornaments directly to a nice blank space of wall.

XmasOrnaments1

Make it as small or as big a display as you wish:

XmasOrnaments2

See the nice mix of scale?

Or you can create your own tree with wooden sticks suspended or nailed into a tree shape:

XmasBranchTree2

Keep is sleek and modern, or make it more old-fashioned and nostalgic,

XmasBranchTree1

Don’t have the time or the energy to make a Christmas tree?  That’s what you think.  All you need is some Washi tape and string:

XmasStringTape

Even if you don’t have room for a tree, you can always include a little Christmas decor on the corner of a shelf.  Here’s what I’ve done this year with a few ornaments that have been in our family for years;

XmasOrniesNext year I’ll take off the wire hangers, this was kind of an experiment this year.  But it looks great on our shelf, and is the perfect touch right there.

So squeeze a little Christmas into your small space.

Tests, trials, and inspections

Even though we had moved into our (tiny, perfect) home at the beginning of the month, the house having passed its Safety Inspection, we actually hadn’t had our FINAL final inspection.  The inspector arrived a couple of weeks ago, and (spoiler alert) we passed!  So now we are very happy and secure that our house is all legal and everything.  **whew**

But that wasn’t the only test we had to pass.  To be deemed energy efficient, we had to have an Energy Efficiency Evaluation.  A qualified energy advisor has assessed the energy efficiency of our house by using Natural Resources Canada’s EnerGuide Rating System procedures. That involves some test, including a Blower Door Test.

energuide-label

The rating goes like this:

New House build to building code standards 65-72
New house with some energy-efficiency improvements 73-79
Energy-efficient new house 80-90
House requiring little or no purchased energy 91-100

Our house got an Energy Efficiency Evaluation of 83!

The evaluation also included a report on how much we can expect to pay to heat the house — combined electrical and natural gas costs of $942.19 — a year!  Along with telling us how much we can expect to pay each month that also gives us a base amount of what we should be spending, so we can see how much our electrical devises/gas stove and barbecue/do-dads and gee-gaws are costing us to run.

And that great score means we can apply for some PowerSmart Rebates.  DD is working on that.  She and DSIL have to apply, as the home owners.

To help us keep track of power usage we might get a Neurio device next year.  A local invention,

Neurio is a home intelligence™ technology that makes your ordinary appliances smart and your home more efficient. Using a WiFi power sensor and a cloud service with some smart pattern detection algorithms, Neurio monitors your home’s electricity to figure out what your appliances are up to – without the need to install sensors on every device.

It’s pretty space age-y, and a great idea to help conserve. If everyone cuts back on the power they use we can all save in the long run.  Here in BC we expect cheap electricity, just like we expect cheap, clean water.  But with more homes being built, more people moving here, we will need more power.  And that means more dams because we just haven’t caught on to the idea of wind farms (even though there’s a big honking windmill visible from Downtown Vancouver).

windmill

Dams are way out in the mountains, far, far away.  But they are super expensive to build.  And the people who own the land way out in the mountains may not be crazy about the idea of, you know, flooding it.  And they were here first.

How much can we stuff into our laneway house?

Stuff is a noun.  And stuff is a verb.  It’s either the things you own, or it’s how you fit them into a small space.

So how much do we need to make us happy? Comfortable? Content?

It’s a long trail of discovery.  With many things discarded along the way.

Last night I watched a movie called “Happy“.  It was a fascinating study of people around the world and what makes them happy.  And guess what doesn’t make them happy?  Stuff. Scientist types explained that wanting stuff makes us happy.  And the anticipation of owning something makes us happy.  We’re even happy when we’re acquiring the stuff. But owning it does not make us happy.  Because once it’s ours, after a very short time it just becomes part of “the stuff we own”.  And apart from it losing that new-car smell and getting a little worn, it also needs to be taken care of.  Polished. Ironed. Painted. Dusted.  More work for you.

Oh, sure, I know you love that guitar/vintage Chanel purse/motorcycle.  But how much of our stuff do we really love, and how much of our stuff is just…..stuff?

We’re lucky in that our two moves this year have brought us face to face with everything we own.  And we own too much.  During the first move I was astonished by the stuff I found in the back of cupboards or the top of closets.  Things I had not even looked at in the 13 years we had lived in that condo.  I said good-bye to it quite happily. Now, as we sift through our Christmas decorations for the ones we can use, the ones that will go to family or to decorate my workplace office, and the ones that will be used to decorate our laneway home, we will be freeing ourselves a little bit more from the tyranny of owning too much stuff.

Huang Qingjun is a Chinese photographer who photographed families with all their belongings posing in front of their homes.  These people own very little.  What they have is precious to them.  You can read more about the story here, here, and here, and read an interview with the photographer here.

My favourite shots are these:

200-7

200-6

Even in a yurt or a mud house built into the side of the hill, these people have their TVs and their satellite dishes.  They are connected with the world outside their small homes.

And I suspect they are happy.

Pushback on small apartments in Portlandia

It’s no secret that the rental market in big cities is crazy.  Crazy as in bad.

This article in the New York Times explains how the people who are being badly squeezed by the rental shortage are those on the bottom of the economic pyramid.  New rental buildings are going up — but only for renters who can afford at least $1500 a month.

Many of the worst shortages are in major cities with healthy local economies, like Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Washington. “We’ve seen a huge loss of affordable housing stock,” said Jenny Reed, the policy director at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “We have lost 50 percent of our low-cost units over the past 10 years, and at the same time, the number of high-cost apartments, the ones going for more than $1,500 a month, more than tripled.”

Everyone is suffering from the rental crunch.  As accommodations get scarce they get more expensive.  It’s bad for everyone, but for the people who don’t make much money it’s far worse. The people who make our lattes, who deliver our papers, who serve us our lunches are all hurting for accommodation they can afford.  So are students, and retirees who don’t own their own home.

And it’s just going to get worse.

Seattle has followed other American cities in allowing (even encouraging) the construction of Micro-suites.  AKA aPodMents.  I’ve spoken of them before.  And other cities in the States are also allowing tiny apartments to go up.

For the adAPT NYC competition, micro-apartments meant an apartment that was between 275-300 sq ft, but these included kitchens and ADA bathrooms. In San Francisco, legislation last year granted an allowance for building dwelling units as small as 220 sq ft, with 70 sq ft for bathroom and kitchen. In Boston, they nervously authorized the construction of 450 sq ft “Innovation Units.” In Providence, RI, they’re making apartments as small as 225 in the Arcade Providence.

But not everyone loves them.  In Portland right now the city government is in the midst of a controversy over a plan to allow these mini-homes to be constructed.

reusable-protest-sign

 The issue, once again, is parking. …The apartments, enjoy a “group living” designation–the same as dormitories, monasteries and convents. As such, they are not required to provide a set amount of parking spaces.

IMHO this opposition is taking is a very, very, very short-sighted view.  Even the most myopic of us can see that having more cars and finding space to put them is not the answer.  Every city planner since Robert Moses has worked to keep cars out of civic cores.  We need them, true, but improved transit and walkable neighbourhoods will serve the entire city (not to mention the planet) much better in the long run.

And let’s look at the market for these micro suites — not every one who rents one will own a car.  Since affordability is the chief attraction of renting one, it’s quite likely that the potential clientèle will use transit or some form of co-op car ownership like Zip Cars or Car2Go rather than tying up money in an automobile.

But even if most of the people in the building have cars, why are the people currently living in the neighbourhood worried about street parking?  Don’t they have garages and parking pads in their yards? And even if they put up “average” sized apartments rather than the micro-suites, isn’t it likely that the tenants will be sharing them, so you end up with the same number of people (and cars).

I’m very much interested in what others feel about micro-suites.  I think there’s definitely a place for them in the housing mix of every large city.

Settling in

The upstairs of our little home is just about finished, which allows me to sit at my kitchen counter/table/desk in our kitchen/sitting room/office and enjoy an extraordinary amount of sunlight pouring in. The coffee is poured, the soft-jazz Christmas music is drifting down from the built-in speakers in the ceiling , and the cat is trying to get my attention by being cute and naughty in turns and sometimes both at once.

Life is good.

We are rapidly getting to the point where the things that have not been done in our laneway get fewer and smaller.  It’s hard to believe it’s so far along when we consider the chaos we moved into…….

**cue time-travelling music**

We had packed up all our belongings, we actually had enough boxes and bags for everything.  The movers had come on time, and had shuttled back and forth to the truck and soon we were all packed up except for the cats and the fish tank and the furniture we were holding for the charitable pick-up later that day.

“Hmmmmm”, said DH, “I think it would be a good idea if we left the cats and fish until we’ve unpacked some stuff.” Wise words.  It was then about noon and that was the last minute we were in control of the situation.

We drove the five minutes to the laneway to find….at least 15 people working on it.  There was a team of cleaners valiantly trying to rid the place of the sanded plaster dust that the painters were creating.  A nice young couple were putting up the frame of our closet system.  There were people wiring and people moving us in, and well, frankly, I lost track of the jobs everyone was doing when the truck pulled up to blow top soil into the yard between the houses so the landscaper could put in the sod.

We unpacked a few things, made the bed, and went back to the rental to feed the cats and the fish, eat a pizza, and await the gentleman from the charity who was picking up the last of our furniture.

We went home to laneway to shower and sleep, but we really felt we were camping out.

The next day a crowd again descended, while I slipped back to the rental to feed the cats and the fish, and to do some shopping.  All told I went back and forth to the rental four times that day — mostly by foot.  That was the day when it seemed we were just not making any headway at all, when we had to move boxes to get to boxes, move boxes to get to the fridge, the washer and dryer, the bathroom sink. We were unpacking but we just could not make any headway.

But we brought the cats “home” and set the fish up on their new shelf, bought specially for that purpose. The cats promptly disappeared into the bowels of the pipes and tubes that are tucked away at one end of the storage space.  It took days until the cats were comfortable to make the whole house their own.  But now….

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