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A hard rain’s gonna fall

Here I sit, surrounded by Christmas cheer — decor, cards, goodies.  My home is the cutest, most adorable little welcome Christmas laneway home all lit up for the season:

XmasHome

But full disclosure — Christmas is kind of a tough time for me.  Three years ago, my mother suffered a stroke and lay in a coma for over a week until she died on Christmas Eve.  You know how Christmas traditions gladden the heart?  Remembering how Mom used to bake for weeks, how the house was filled with music and the intoxicating scent of gingerbread and cloves?  Cards from distant friends and relatives?  Caroling?  Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special? Well, that reminds me of when my Mom died.  Everything about the season reminds me of it.  As the years go by I hope that the achy feeling I get will fade a bit. But for right now…..

Of course, I’m not the only one who is hurting this time of year.  As Marsha Lederman reminds us in her Globe and Mail article,

Maybe this is your first Christmas after the death of a loved one. Maybe you’re going through a divorce. Maybe you’ve just lost your job at CHCH or Bell Media or Suncor or in some other layoff that didn’t make the news. Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Or, heaven forbid, your child has. Maybe you have depression or anxiety. Maybe you had a miscarriage or are trying, desperately, to conceive a child. Maybe there’s alcoholism in your family and you’re worried about another Christmas Day blow-up. Or maybe you’re sober and can’t face one more boozy holiday party. Perhaps treacherous family dynamics have left you out in the cold this year, disinvited to Christmas dinner. Maybe a loved one is in trouble with the law or has a mental illness or has lost their way and is suffering. And so you are too.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the people who just can’t afford Christmas.  The tree, the decorations, the extra food and the gifts.  The stress on them must be nearly unbearable.

Of course adding to the melancholy that overtakes us is the feeling that we should be having a wonderful time!  How dare you be blue at Christmas! It’s the time of CHEER, DAMMIT! Or those poor souls who were expecting a magical Christmas and found that it was just **meh** (kind of like when you were a kid and woke up on Boxing Day and realized that getting what you wanted and asked for was not going to make you truly happy). Those people can find January a very cold month indeed.

And there will be cheer for me, visiting with my beloved family on Christmas Day and just being quietly, gratefully there. But there will be a few tears, too.

I am glad of the way I’ve found to display the very old ornaments we had when I was a child — suspended from a tension rod in a window:

XmasWindow

And I’m especially glad that we’ve cut way back on the baking and visiting and gift-giving (and ergo:  gift buying — so exhausting) and that I can just slip back to our little haven if celebrations elsewhere get too tiring.

So along with all the thoughts of sugarplums you’ll have this year, please spare a thought for those of us who will not be filled with the spirit of Christmas present.

Aly Semigran knows what it’s like to face depression during the holiday season.  And in her blog post she offers this comfort:

That you deserve to be healthy and that it takes work and time and it’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. Your friends and family will be waiting for you at the other end of this, whether it’s on a holiday or some random Wednesday when that fog finally lifts.

It’s okay to skip the songs on the radio that make you feel sad (Burl Ives will have to serenade someone else), it’s okay if the mall makes you feel utterly overwhelmed (though I will take that Auntie Anne’s pretzel, thankyouverymuch), and it’s okay if this particular holiday season wasn’t it what it was “supposed” to look like. It’s the best gift you’ll ever receive: the understanding that it’s okay. You’re okay. It’ll be okay.

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.

What to expect when you deal with a contractor

Congratulations!  You’ve found your contractor!  You are on your way to a better home!

Not exactly as shown

Not exactly as shown

What can you expect from your contractor? And what can they expect from you?

Contract.  A contract guarantees both parties know what is expected of them.  You get the assurance that the job will start on a certain date and will be finished by a certain date for an agreed-upon price.  There are several types of contracts, fixed-price, lump sum, time and materials, etc., plus various combinations of them.  Here’s an explanation of the different types and their advantages and disadvantages.  Depending on the size and complexity of your project, the contract can be very complicated or quite simple.  The important thing is that you HAVE a contract.  You should both know exactly what is being built and what is expected.  Read it, go over it line by line with your contractor, so you know exactly what you are getting.

The contract will also show that your builder has insurance, and will lay out the liability limits.

Permit.  If a contractor tells you they can do a job without a permit, think hard about hiring them.  If there will be any changes to the outline of the house (a deck, for instance), if there will be any changes to interior walls, plumbing, lighting,  make sure your contractor is doing drawings and pulling permits.  Yes, it costs you money.  Yes, it can be frustrating when the project is held up waiting for an inspector.  But permits are a guarantee that someone is watching your project.  Benevolently.  From above.

Deposit.  It’s customary to give your contractor 40% of the project fee up front. Then, when you receive the invoices for the work done (the scheduling of the invoices should be laid out in the contract), the invoice will indicate that 40% of the costs have been paid.  So if you get an invoice for $100, you will pay $60 of that, the remainder having been paid by the deposit.

Holdbacks.  These sound simple but are complicated. If your project costs more than $100,000 it’s mandatory for you to have a holdback account, where 10% of each payment you make to the builder is put aside in an account and held there until 55 days after the contract’s end.  This is to protect you — you can hold back that money if the job isn’t done to your specifications (thus “holdback” account).  It also protects the sub-contractors and suppliers because they can apply for some of that holdback money if the General Contractor didn’t pay them. It’s up to you and your contractor to include this in the contract, so talk it over with them.

Schedule.  Your contractor should indicate what job is done when.  The schedule has to have some flexibility built in, because there will be external forces at work to screw it up, whether it’s a storm that holds up deliveries or one of the aforementioned inspectors who’s sick that week.  But you should have a good estimate of who is supposed to show up when, and as the project nears completion you should be given a firm date.

Meetings.  The contract should set a schedule for meeting with the builder/contractor.  You should get together at the project once every two weeks to go over what’s been done and review any problems that have come up.

Good communication.  You should be able to reach your contractor between meetings to ask any questions you may have.  And they should be able to reach you! Problems may arise that have to have a quick answer.

 

 

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.

Away in a laneway, no room for a tree

I wrote about our first Christmas in the laneway house just one year ago.  Now I’ve had a whole year to think about decorating our little space and I’ve found lots of ideas on what to do when you JUST DON’T HAVE ROOM for a traditional Christmas trees. I started with the ideas I found last year, and searched the internet (with a little help from Apartment Therapy and Houzz).

Don’t think that you have to give up the idea of having live greens inside.  You can drop by a tree lot late in the day and ask if you can have some of the lower branches they’ve trimmed off the trees.  Have an idea how long the branches should be to fit into your container so you can ask them to take off a couple of inches for a perfect fit.  It doesn’t have to be big to be striking:

treeOr you can use just pretty sticks and put some ornaments on them.

branches

But these ideas need a little corner of a table or  floor to display them.  And if you don’t have that little space to spare I can certainly feel your pain.

Take a look at your walls — you can finesse a Christmas tree by using some of that vertical space. (Maybe take down some of your current artwork for a real change).

Here’s a do-it-yourself tree that can look as zippy and modern or as sweet and old fashioned as you like, depending on what papers you choose.  This one is made of paint chips — but you could use regular coloured paper or even Christmas wrap.

paper

 

Or use tissue paper to make this clever fringe tree:

fringe

 

You can also make this cute and modern string tree with the kids.  Hang ornaments or Christmas cards (or a combination of both). It’s put up with Command transparent hooks so no damage to your wall.

stringIn fact there’s no end to the ideas on how you can put a tree directly on a wall.

Use lights (and Command hooks) to make a tree:

light1

Or just place anything, ornaments or cards or a combination, in a roughly triangular shape:

cards

How about putting some decorations  in your windows.  Use the existing curtain rod, or put a spring loaded rod within the window area.

WindowDecorations

Or just hang a nice grouping with bright ribbon:

window

Still can’t find the room?  Look up!  Here are the instructions to put together this striking mobile — put it over your table for a lovely centrepiece that won’t take up any table space or block the person on the other side.

Mobile

Do you have a balcony or deck?  Or even a little yard?  Put your tree outside.  We do:

XmasNightTree XmasTree2013

It sits just outside our sitting area window so we can enjoy it from the comfort of our couch without it crowding us at all. I’m thinking about painting the lights cord white to hide it better.

We used an artificial tree, you could use a live tree or even a living tree in a pot.  Or a tomato cage:

tomatocage

A couple of these on your balcony would really make a show!

 

Home, home on the screen

Classic TV shows had great homes.  Roseanne aside, houses were meant to be aspirational, just a little bigger/tidier/nicer than our own, so we could relate without really noticing them.  They were sets, not characters.  Or….were they?  Didn’t they become characters in the shows?

Thanks to artists Mark Bennett  and Inaki Aliste Lizarralde we can revisit those oh-so-familiar homes through their floor plans.

ILoveLucyFloorPlansWe spent many hours in that apartment with these folks

FloorPlansLucyBut that was a New York City flat.  How about this home:

FloorPlansLeaveItToBeaver

Even with four bedrooms (and 2.5 baths) Wally and the Beav shared a room.

 

The next decade brought us more homes we visited every week

FloorPlansRobPetrie

FloorPlansStephens

FloorPlansBradyBunch

Of course, Mike Brady was an architect, so his place reflected the open-concept, shag-covered tastes of the time.

But all these houses had one thing in common, something that shows itself in the reruns of the shows.

They weren’t very big.

Sure, they were bigger than our homes.  Nicer and newer and just better.  But they weren’t huge.

According to Life Edited, in 1950 the average floor space of a house was 983 square feet.  By 2012 that area had grown to 2,662 square feet, and there were fewer people living in the house. Over the years we got used to the idea that we needed more rooms.  But we really don’t.

That Life Edited article cites the book Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century which has some interesting things to say about what goes on in those big homes:

  • 3 out of 4 of the families garages cannot fit cars because of excessive stockpiling from stores like Costco.

  • 50 of the 64 parents reported not stepping outside in the course of a week.

And what are they doing inside those homes? The book describes a survey that showed how every member of the household moved throughout the home — a measurement taken every ten minutes.  And the pattern looked like this

No one used that formal dining room.  No one sat and chatted in the lovely living room.  Those spaces weren’t needed. And they are expensive in terms of heating, cooling, cleaning, decorating.  The more house the more money you need to support it.  And to build it.

 The outstanding domestic debt of the Household and Home Mortgage Sector in 1950 was $411B (adjusted for inflation). Currently, that same figure is $9.7 trillion. While the population has doubled and home ownership and college attendance have increased, this is still an increase of over 23-times.

Let’s start thinking and planning how we want to house ourselves in this new century.  Let’s leave our fantasy homes on the screen.

Teensy tinyness — taking it even smaller

I was chatting with an acquaintance the other day, who knowing how fanatical keen I am on small houses, told me that he and his wife are planning on building a tiny house. Not small — tiny.  One of the houses that fit snugly into the Tiny House Movement, at under 120 square feet.

Rustic Exterior by Other Metro Architects & Designers Tumbleweed Tiny House Company

Currently they are renting a nice condo in Vancouver.  The tiny house (on wheels) would sit on his in-law’s property out in the Fraser Valley, and would serve as their quarters as they help her parents renovate their home. If the home is then sold, they would just roll the home onto some recreational property, or onto a corner of the subdivided property. Or they might just decide to move out there and stay.

It’s the perfect solution to their current dilemma, although presently they are not planning to live full-time in the home.

But others do.

Dee Williams has lived for 10 years in just 84 square feet. It’s an accomplishment, to be sure, one worthy of having a book written about her experience.

Like this one.  Which she wrote.
Williams used to live in a much bigger house.  With a big mortgage and big heating bills.  But a life crisis made her realize what was really important — and she turned her life around and put it into a tiny house.
She realized what her true priorities are.
Time has become her most valued and abundant possession. “I have time to notice my natural environment and take a breath through the seasons, to puzzle over the way that nature is throwing itself at me and the community. I live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. If you’re working all the time, sitting inside, you miss a lot of it. I feel lucky and blessed that I’ve been able to pay attention to it.” 

Dee’s story has been told here in Houzz, and here.  And she’s given a TED Talk on it.

It’s a big story (about a tiny house).

Tiny houses come in a surprising variety of designs.  This couple has a luxuriant 240 square feet in a space no wider than 8 1/2 feet and no taller than 13 1/2 feet.

Contemporary Exterior by Sebastopol Architects & Designers The Tiny Project

 

What makes tiny houses so liveable?

The blog Tiny House Talk has some suggestions to get the most spaciousness (if not space) in your tiny home.

Some of them are fairly apparent, such as combining your living room and your bedroom to avoid partitioning already small areas even further.  But some I would never think of, like

Keep the space uncluttered above waist height. Anything above waist height that projects into the living space will make the space feel that much smaller. That means kitchen base cabinets are not a problem, but upper cabinets might be. Limit cabinets, shelves, or anything else that intrudes into this space.

This one is a given

Use light colors to create a spacious feeling. Light colors make a space seem bigger, while dark colors make a space seem smaller. Choose white or light-colored finishes for the ceiling and walls. (The floor color is less important for this purpose).

In most of the tiny houses I have seen have seen the ceiling and walls are all the same light colour, so your eye travels from the walls up to the gabled roof without interruption.

And of course

Open up to the outdoors. In addition to windows, think of creative ways that doors or even whole sliding walls could allow you to open your house up. (Check out the Virginia Tech LumenHaus for one elegant example). With a porch, deck, and a whole landscape outside, your tiny space won’t feel at all claustrophobic.

I know that just having our deck outside the upper floor of our laneway makes the entire storey seem larger.

As the author at Tiny House Talk points out

There’s no doubt about it—downsizing and simplifying your life to fit in a tiny home is a very difficult thing to do. And you certainly will want some storage space, partitions, and so on. But beware of the “big house mentality” in which a room can be packed with cabinets, bookshelves, and furniture and still feel spacious. In a tiny house, it can’t. Restraint, and a little bit of good design, will go a long way towards making your small space feel plenty comfortable.

And as DH has pointed out several times, Good Design Trumps Space.

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