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Where — and how — do you want to live

When DH and I began planning our laneway we started by looking around at what was familiar to us.   We had a pretty conventionally designed condo, two beds and two baths,  and we couldn’t get around the idea that we were going to be living in less than half the space we had.  We thought about what we would lose, not what we would gain.

We looked at how other people were downsizing and building laneways, we saw what we liked and what we didn’t like.  And gradually it dawned on us that we shouldn’t just look at how other people live, or how we USED to live, we should look forward, to how we WANTED to live.  We let our imaginations go a little.  We didn’t just want an average house that had been shrunk, we wanted a new plan for us that would lead to a whole new life.  We knew there would be sacrifices (Like “space”.  And “things”.) But in the end we had exactly what we wanted.

There was no way to imagine at the beginning of the journey how it would end. And how it would change our lives.

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Among many other advantages our new life has given us is that we drive less and take transit more often. And we like it. When the car was available down a flight of stairs we used it all the time — whenever we went down town or out for dinner or over to the kids.  Even though transit was right there we didn’t even think about it, we had a car!  Why not use it?

But now we take transit all the time.  I take the 99 Express to work.  It takes a little more time than driving, but I read or knit, and there’s no problem getting a seat because I’m at the end of the line (both ends of the line).  We take transit down town, it’s less than half an hour and we don’t have to worry about parking.  We get down to Granville Island without going through the Hell that is finding parking on a sunny Saturday. If we want to take in a Night Market we can zip out to Richmond or take the Sea Bus to North Vancouver.  All in all Translink is a pretty good system.

So when Translink wanted to expand we were enthusiastically supportive.  Even when the Provincial Government said that the local governments would have to raise their share through a sales tax hike (.5%) we said yes.  But the Provincial Government wanted it put to a referendum; we said yes — but 62% of the region said no.

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I was pretty steamed. Although I could also understand it.  It’s the old problem of trying to see the end of the journey from where you are now (comfortably behind the wheel of your car).

Others were also frustrated.  Peter Ladner in Business in Vancouver pointed out it was a pretty dumb idea in the first place (or as he put it more elegantly “Determining complex funding and planning issues with a single yes-no vote is an abysmal surrender of political leadership.”) Follow the link, he points out other lessons learned through the referendum process. Hard, nasty lessons, but lessons all the same.

But it was a column by Peter McMartin that put all my inchoate rage into a coherent verbal form. Read the whole thing, please, but for me this is the key issue:

The questions pile up. But the most perceptive question was one I heard in a conversation with Gordon Price, director of Simon Fraser University’s City program. To him, the plebiscite asked a question much more philosophical than yea or nay to a transit tax.

“To me,” Price said, “it was an existential question.

“It asked Metro Vancouverites, ‘Who are we?’ ”

Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Pete+McMartin+real+Vancouver+emerges+from+ruins+plebiscite/11187386/story.html#ixzz3fF1TYKXt

I have to agree with Peter McMartin that Vancouver is currently nothing special.  We’re in a lovely natural setting.  But we’re not living up to our reputation as innovative and free-thinking nature-lovers.  We just can’t imagine our lives without cars.

I want you to do it — to imagine your life with a dependable transit system that can take you all over the Lower Mainland.  Cheaply.  Easily. No congestion. Freeways with smoothly-running traffic from Horseshoe Bay to Hope.   Doing your shopping by hopping on and off the Broadway Skytrain.  Taking the family to the beach or the park on the bus.  No parking problems.  Less pollution.

Or how about this?  Using a service like ZipCar or Car 2 Go in combination with Transit.  Giving up the ownership of a vehicle that sits parked 90% of the time for greater freedom of mobility. Answering the question of Who are we? with “we’re the people with vision, we ARE the future, we embrace change for the better and accept the inevitability of the end of the automotive age. We are part of that change.”

Otherwise those of us who use transit will be forced to use a less reliable form of transportation:

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Reduce, reuse, recycle — a house

In our neighbourhood – as in yours I’m sure – the old makes way for the new.  And it’s disappointing at best and heart-breaking at its worst to see fine old homes ripped down for cookie-cutter-mini mansions (in our neighbourhood) or mega-mansions (in richer neighbourhoods).  We had a moment’s worry when the homes on either side of our two-house compound were sold, but luck was with us, the new owners have renovated a bit and moved into the original structures.

Tearing down old houses creates waste and lots of it.  Each demolished home sends 50 tonnes of material to the landfill.  Often homes are ripped down with no thought of recycling the building materials.

But not in Gimli.  Gimli, Manitoba.  According to this story in the Interlake Enterprise newspaper, clever Melanie Casselman is recycling homes rescued from nearby Winnipeg and putting them on lots in Gimli.

Photo courtesy of Interlake Enterprise

Photo courtesy of Interlake Enterprise

 

It’s a great idea, and not just because it saves money for the developers (because they don’t have to pay for demolishing) and not just because it puts up instant homes in a growing community.  It’s a great idea because it perfectly embraces the idea that we don’t just throw things out.  We try to save as much as we can.

Well done, Melanie Casselman!  Bravo Gimli!

Full disclosure, Melanie Casselman is a distant cousin of my son-in-law.  Further disclosure, I went to college with a girl from Gimli, a natural Icelandic blond by name of Solvason.

DIY? Or hire a pro? Ask yourself these questions.

If, like me, you have been watching the season marathons at the DIY&HG stations, you are probably looking around your place and wanting to make a few changes.  (Unless, like me, you moved into a brand new custom-built place a year ago).

Don't try this at home, kids.

Don’t try this at home, kids.

And you may even have good ideas about what you want, and you’re feeling like maybe you can do it yourself.  How do you know if you should tackle the job by yourself and when to hire a contractor?

1. Have you done it before?  Yes, you helped your brother replace his toilet.  Sure, you repainted your summer house.  OK, you are good to go.  You know the scope of the job and you’re prepared for a realistic amount of work and mess.

2. Do you have to buy or rent new tools to perform the task?  If you’re putting in a new backsplash, for instance, scoring and clipping a few tiles to make that corner fit is something most handy homeowners can handle. Hiring a tile saw takes a little fix-it job to another step.  Drilling a hole in concrete to hold a bolt is one thing, hiring a pneumatic drill is another. Got a compound mitre saw?  It’s a pretty tricky thing to operate. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but the more complex the tools, the more complex the job, and maybe it’s something you should leave to someone who has used those tools before.

3.  How much mess can you live with?  And for how long? I have friends who wanted a new ceiling ladder installed so they could have access to storage in their attic.  It wasn’t a big job, so a friend of a friend with considerable home reno experience said he would do it.  But he ran into problems.  And instead of asking my friends if they wanted their contractor to handle the now-larger job, he took it upon himself to do it.  Of course, he was working weekends and evenings, with the occasional afternoon work.  Short story long, six weeks later the ladder is still waiting to be installed and there’s a big ugly hole in their back bedroom ceiling.  When you DIY, you can be living with mess for weeks because the work is usually performed in someone’s spare time.

4. Does it matter if the job isn’t very well done?  Not a crazy question.  If you are having a complete kitchen reno in the next few years, just stick on some tiles on the floor and the walls and smarten the place up for a quick fix.  A cute mural on a wall that will be repainted when the child is a few years older doesn’t need to be Disney-approved.  A DIY slipcover on a sofa that will be tossed when your reno is done next year does not have to look perfect.

5. Does the pro who does the job need a license? Never do your own wiring.  Don’t do more than the simplest plumbing jobs yourself.  You are not only jeopardizing the future value to your home, you could be risking your life.

Now here’s something you may not have thought about

6. How much will the job cost? For larger jobs, you might want to borrow some money.  There’s a payoff to borrowing money for projects that will increase the value of your home (I’m talking about bathrooms and kitchens).  Not many lenders will let you walk away with their cash unless you have a professional doing the job.

7. What will it look like? Even if you are making minor design changes, I recommend hiring a designer.  Even after years of poring over design websites and magazines, I could never have found the creative solutions to our space problems that our designer did.  Unless you are an architect or a designer you just don’t have the knowledge to provide the best results.

Now we know whether or not we want to hire someone, I’ll have a few suggestions on finding the right person to help.

Five things I’ve learned in our first year of laneway living

The beginning of December marked our first full year of laneway living.  We have completely settled in, are thrilled to be living so close to our kids, and are looking forward to the coming new year of life on the lane.

Our house is a very, very, very nice house

Our house is a very, very, very nice house

During this time we have learned some very important lessons — hard won sometimes — that I want to share:

1. We did not need all the stuff we had.

Ergo: You do not need all the stuff you have. This is the hardest lesson to learn and you will never really learn it until you downsize.  Because……..

2. You will never get rid of your extra stuff until you have to

Maybe you are looking around you now and thinking that you have too much stuff.  Nah, just kidding, you are not thinking that at all.  You’ve just ditched the Christmas decorations and your place has a nice, stripped down look.  No way could you ever live with less.  There’s a reason you bought everything you own, just as there’s a reason why people gave you stuff.

Gradually you will stop using that gadget, stop wearing those clothes, but YOU DON’T GET RID OF THEM.  Because you have the space to put them.  And you tell yourself (those fatal words), “I might need that”. And into the closet or the storage room they go – to be forgotten.

So you will never realize how little you can live with until you get rid of everything (or nearly so) and start afresh.

This is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Please don’t think I’m going to get all obnoxious on you because we are still getting rid of stuff.  We have a storage locker full of stuff we don’t use.  How do I know we won’t need it in the future?  Because we haven’t needed it in the past year.  When I was unpacking kitchen boxes at move-in I put a large salad bowl and some platters into some of our precious, precious kitchen cupboard space. And there they sit, unused this whole year.  I have to get rid of them.  But I haven’t.  Because I don’t have to.

But now I want to unpack some of  our storage space stuff and will have to have room for that, and those unused items will have to go, go, go.

Baby steps, my friend, baby steps.

3. Design trumps size

Up at the DD and DSIL’s big house BIG plans are afoot.  The kitchen and bath are being stripped back to the studs and rebuilt, fixing many problems (more on this later).  The rooms will not be any larger, but will be much, much more efficient.  Because DESIGN.

Ask anyone who lives in a mobile home or a houseboat — or even a small condo.  You can find storage room that you never dreamed of. Space for your shoes in your staircase. A lift-up bed for linens and more.  A half-height mechanical room off the deck with room for our Christmas decorations.

So if you are thinking living in a small house is just taking your current space and shrinking it, disavow yourself of this notion.  You can get your designer and builder to put in much more storage per square foot than you currently have.

4. Living outside of your house has its rewards

We used to spend a lot of time cleaning and primping our former place.  Two full bedrooms, two baths, plus a living room and two halls to vacuum.  Lots of open shelving to dust.

But now we have lots of time to spare after our clean-up routines.  Time to take walks.  Get on the Skytrain and go. Get out to the gym.  We are looking forward to some travel this year.  We’re getting lots of exercise and having fun.

5. A small home IS all you need

While the laneway was being built we used to drop by and watch the progress.  At every step, from the concrete pour for the foundation to the finishing touches on the moulding, we told ourselves that the place was going to be soooooo small.  It was too late to turn back, but we were worried that our home would be constricting and claustrophobic.

But we were wrong.

It’s cozy.  It’s comfortable.  It’s bright and cheery. When the rainy weather stops us from go out for a walk we are happy spending the day indoors — there’s space where we can each hideaway and do our own thing.

PS: The financial situation is pretty good, too

We consider ourselves pretty lucky that we found the laneway solution to living in a too-expensive home too far from family.  Every month we are just a little bit farther ahead financially, rather than the other way around.  We save on power, water, gas living in such a small, energy efficient home.  We buy fewer things (that we would end up not using anyway) because everything we bring into the place has to earn its space.

It’s win all the way.

I’ll have a small Christmas, thanks.

Holiday-Cartoon-Slideshow03-690

 

Thank you, New Yorker magazine!

The word came down from on high this year:  just one small gift is expected for our granddaughter.  And keep away from anything pink and plastic.  (“On high” is the main house where our little darling resides, and her mother gave us the word).

Speaking as a grandparent, it’s easy and fun for us to stroll the aisles at the toy store, picking out expensive and adorable toys to give DGD.  And it’s wonderful to watch her little face light up as she rips off the wrapping.

But then what?

We’ve seen it many times.  Scenes around the Christmas tree where the parents (or more usually, the grandparents) have bought out the store, wrapped them up and given a mountain of gifts to children barely able to say their address. The tykes are overwhelmed with the amount of toys.  They don’t know which they want to play with first, and which will be discarded or broken within a month.

I’ve heard the excuses “We don’t have the chance to spend more time with the kids so we want to make sure they remember us.” “I never had a lot of toys when I was a kid, and my grand-kids will never want for any!” Or the ridiculous “But all their friends have them, I don’t want them to feel deprived!”

No, no, no, and no.

You may be giving objects, but you are teaching them all the wrong lessons.

It’s hard to find data on the effect of too many Christmas presents on the young mind.  Not a lot of parents want to sign up for lab tests to determine that they are, indeed, ruining their children’s lives.  All we can do is look back on the presents we received when we were children.

Remember them?  I bet you don’t.  Oh, maybe that one year you got the exact present you wanted.  But all the other Christmases?  I’m betting you remember that game of snap you played with your grandmother; building a tower with your Dad with that Erector set; singing the old songs with the old folks, someone at the piano and the rest gathered around. I remember the smell of new books, not the books themselves. (I love books.)

We recall those goofy traditions, like everyone sitting around the tree in their pyjamas (no opening presents until Mom and Dad have their coffees in their hands) or taking a walk around the neighbourhood while the turkey roasts.

Build your own traditions.   Make your own memories.  The nicest things we get at Christmas don’t come from stores.

If less is more, is more less?

This week everyone is crazeeeee about the whole “Black Friday” thing.  Every time I turn on the TV or open a newspaper, the advertising is exhorting me to buy, Buy, BUY!  Stock up for Christmas, get a great deal of a new piece of equipment, spoil myself and my loved ones.

XmasSale

 

Some people even cross the border to bring back loot.  (BTW, this article says that many retailers actually put up their regular prices before the end of November so they can drop them for Black Friday.  Be diligent, check and compare.)

Living in a little house has completely turned this season around for us.  Not only do we not want anything, we have no where to put it if we got it.  So don’t give us a new TV, or even a new remote.  We have too much stuff as it is.  Last year we didn’t exchange gifts between the adults of the family, and we’ll do the same thing again this year.  Instead we’ll get together with loved ones, have a nice Christmas dinner, and we’ll visit back and forth during the holidays.  It’s low-key.  We’ll decorate our homes, bake some cookies.  Take a little time to unwind and appreciate what we have.

So before you buy into the whole “buying” thing, think about what you really need and what makes you happy.  It’s not stuff, I’ll wager.  You’d probably be just as happy if you took the money you use to buy gifts and just gave it away to charity.  Happier, even.

Remember, you probably don’t need more of anything.  In his book, Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust by Darrell M. West  , he points out that rich people aren’t happier than poor people, they are often more miserable. Because what they really want is “more”.

In this review of the book, Michael Lewis says

Not long ago an enterprising professor at the Harvard Business School named Mike Norton persuaded a big investment bank to let him survey the bank’s rich clients….In a forthcoming paper, Norton and his colleagues track the effects of getting money on the happiness of people who already have a lot of it: a rich person getting even richer experiences zero gain in happiness.

And Lewis goes on to say

something in the world has changed—or is changing. And I think it is: there is a growing awareness that the yawning gap between rich and poor is no longer a matter of simple justice but also the enemy of economic success and human happiness. It’s not just bad for the poor. It’s also bad for the rich. It’s funny, when you think about it, how many rich people don’t know this.

So don`t look for happiness in the next gadget or knickknack or fooforall.  You probably have more than enough.  (I know I“m chockablock with fooforalls.)

This is the time to say no to more consumerism.

There’s been some backlash to the blatant mass consumerism of the Black Friday event. Adbusters, a Vancouver-based not-for-profit magazine, often promotes their “Buy Nothing Day” on the same day as Black Friday, said Katherine White, a Sauder School of Business professor in consumer insights, prosocial consumption, and sustainability

Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Retailers+often+inflate+prices+before+Black+Friday+discounts+Vancity+report/10409658/story.html#ixzz3K7TQBZgu

(Less) Power to the people!

I chatted with Ian and Steve at the Home Discovery Show  on CKNW about the difference in the amount of energy we use here at the laneway house.  It really hit me this week when I signed up for BC Hydro’s Equal Billing.  We are paying $35 a month for our electricity now, back at the condo we paid $64 a month.  That’s a huge difference because even though our new home is about half the size of our old one, our condo was on the second floor of a three-storey building, so we only had two exterior walls.  Now we have four exterior walls over 1.5 floors, plus a roof and deck over the entire footprint.

But we don’t have to depend on lower energy bills to know our laneway is energy-efficient. Our house received an EnerGuide rating of 83 from BC Hydro.

Developed by Natural Resources Canada, an EnerGuide rating is a standard measure of a home’s energy performance. A rating of 0 represents a home with major air leakage, no insulation and extremely high energy consumption. A rating of 100 represents an airtight, well insulated, sufficiently-ventilated home that requires no purchased energy.

Power Smart new homes are required to achieve at least ENERGUIDE 80, higher than what’s required by the B.C. Building Code.

That rating put us in the “highly energy-efficient new house” category in their rating system.

This is “Offtober” at BC Hydro.  Visit their site to see how you can save on special deals from retailers; PowerSmart Programs; and play contests.

EnergyStar

If you want to make some changes to your home you can take advantage of rebates and other incentives from the City of Vancouver, BC Hydro, and Fortis.   Find out more about that here.

If you are a low-income household you can take advantage of BC Hydro’s Energy Conservation Assistance Program.  Find out more about this here.

And if you just want to get started living a more sustainable life, pick up some hints here .

What does all this energy efficiency mean to us?  It means lower Fortis bills for a start.  We pay about $25 a month for natural gas for our heating and cooking (including our barbecue).  But it also means getting out of bed on a winter morning and feeling that radiant heat.  It means no cold corners, no nasty drafts.  It means comfort, as much as sustainability.

 

 

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