When it comes to housing, small is the new big

rear elevation
© Workshop Architecture/ Rear elevation

Over at Inhabitat, Peter Grisby writes Why Small Homes Make Better Homes, and makes some very good points about the benefits of smaller homes. They use less energy (if properly built) they reduce your consumption (because you have nowhere to put anything), You will spend more time outdoors (because you have so little room indoors). He is right, but the future of small homes isn't in single family houses. It is in apartments, low rise buildings, back lanes and house conversions.

Tiny (or just small) apartments are the next big thing.

I was ready to downsize out of our house in Toronto into a condo, but my wife Kelly did not want to leave it. And I wasn't going to move to my own tiny home from my failed former career as a minihome entrepreneur. (Shameless plug: rent it here on the shores of Lake Ontario) Instead, I am carving my own small home out of our big existing house and staying in a walkable community, close to shopping, services, theaters, museums and all the things that make cities so wonderful.

Kelly Rossiter/CC BY 2.0

It's not an easy thing to do. Our first task was to get rid of stuff so that we could actually fit into the new space, and we had collected a lot. The hardest thing for me was getting rid of thousands of books. Had I a lot of time I could have tried to sell all this stuff online but instead just had an open house for all of our kids' friends, who are all of the age where they are starting up households and they came and carted it away. I used Freecycle as well, and got rid of a lot of the books that way. Other architecture books and magazines I donated to a young architecture practice Workshop Architecture, who I had hired to do the design and get us through City Hall, also not an easy thing to do.

© Workshop Architecture

To subdivide the house, architect David Colussi had to design ceiling assemblies that met fire and acoustic code requirements without destroying the character of the spaces that we were preserving, the existing living and dining room. He had to design side walls (18" from the property line) out of noncombustible construction. He had to find space for my office (I work from home) my wife's office, storage for what's left, and for my crazy bathroom. The additions on the back of the house were falling off (literally, you could see through the connection) and needed to be replaced.

© Workshop Architecture

As per my request, he had to make it as green as possible, which is really difficult with noncombustible side walls. When we are fighting for inches of space and don't want a foot of cellulose insulation. So many of those materials that I go on about hating (styrofoam under the slab, spray foam in the back wall) are here as compromise solutions. I get super R-40 insulation in some places and just R-14 in others where I am insulating in the old part of the house and want to let some heat escape to drive out moisture.

Lloyd Alter/ framing rear/CC BY 2.0

It helps a lot that we are using a really good green builder (Greening Homes) that cares about this stuff from the top down. Our site supervisor, Janette, is a certified passive house builder. Usually the carpenters on job sites are talking about last night's hockey game; the guys framing our house talk about their last Joe Lstiburek training camp . We spend our days with our noses inside John Straube's High Performance Building enclosures, looking for details of walls that work.

Lloyd Alter/ side wall steel studs/CC BY 2.0

The side wall is a whole post in itself; it had to be made with steel studs because when there is a unit over a unit the wall had to be noncombustible. I hate steel studs, pure thermal bridge. So we are using Cascadia clips ( a clever plastic stand-off clip) to hold up the exterior cladding and putting most of the insulation (rock wool) outside. John Straube would be proud, it's right out of his book. We are mixing 5 different wall assemblies in two hundred square feet, it is crazy.

But in the end, Kelly and I will be occupying a third of the house. We will have an income stream from our tenants that will cover the cost of the renovations. We have a renovated, insulated and stable house that will not need a lot of maintenance over the years to come. We will have a heating system that works.

This is an option that many baby boomer aged home owners could consider as a way of staying in their homes; it is surprising how many house designs can be converted easily, how many basements can be turned into decent housing, how many back yards on back lanes can be occupied with small houses. There are thousands of residential units that can be created all over our cities if people would realize that small really is the new big.

Tags: Less Is More | Living With Less | Small Spaces