Small is beautiful

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, March 2015

A small house doesn’t have to be a big compromise.

Is it just my rose-coloured glasses or am I finally seeing some real incremental change in the way we do housing on southern Vancouver Island? I realize the sprawling mansions will always be with us—probably one day destined to repeat local history and be split into multiple units—but smaller homes seem to be gaining local favour.

I base this on my own informal observation that smaller homes are selling more quickly, and housing developments full of well-designed, modest homes are cropping up and doing brisk business. Sprawling ostentation seems to be losing ground to practical, manageable, timeless beauty. Even the Saturday Times Colonist has been veering away from the customized-everything château. A recently showcased, mid-sized gem was touted as having, not a grand staircase, but a porch overhang designed to save energy by letting in the winter sun and blocking out the summer heat. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Other evidence of transition: New housing starts in general seem to have had a merciful dressing-down in both size and spectacle. And just today I noticed lots for sale in North Saanich that featured yet-to-be-built, 1200-square-foot homes. A decade ago no developer would have bothered with anything this small.

No doubt this “trend” is at least partially driven by affordability. (According to the Victoria Foundation, our top two concerns continue to be housing and cost of living, a deflating double-punch to the dream in “dream home.”) But more than that is going on. We apparently are a hotbed for change, and when it comes to housing, the winds of new perspective and attitude are fanning us right down to our grassroots. The younger generation seems less enamoured with the notion of house as monument and has priorities that preclude the physical and financial burden of being anchored to a home steeped in largesse. They’re looking for shelter that serves them well, not vice versa.

Downsizing also seems to be the goal of every empty-nest boomer I know, me included. Like the millennials, we’ve ditched our passion for formal rooms and are discovering that we can live and socialize just as easily—no, easier—in smaller, better-planned multi-purpose spaces. Architects like Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House books, have convinced us of this.

Seniors, too, are rethinking their options and generating fresh ideas for scaled-down living. Leading the way is Harbourside Cohousing in Sooke, an affordable, sustainable and socially supportive project that champions the smaller, energy-efficient home clustered in a community setting. In town, there’s the Fernwood Urban Village co-housing project, also aiming at a smaller footprint on the Earth, and not just for seniors.

All of this bodes well for us since downsizing is a crucial step towards any hope for sustainability in the future. Why? Because our conventional homes—oversized and inefficient—use an alarming amount of energy, far more than BC’s entire agriculture sector and just as much as its commercial/industrial sector, according to a 2010 report by the University of Victoria’s Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.

American research echoes the concern. The Ohio-based Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions reports that the total energy consumption of residential buildings (factoring in both construction and operational costs) is roughly equivalent to just over 25 percent of the energy consumed annually in the US by all sectors.

Who knew we were such energy hogs—we who cart our recyclables to the curb, use reusable grocery bags, tinker with the odd solar-powered gadget and try to leave the car at home. Just when we think we’re comfortably green, along comes the directive to start rethinking—and shrinking—the very spaces we live in. But it doesn’t have to be a compromise. The internet offers a wealth of inspiration and astute local builders are gaining interest and skill in sustainable construction and in melding the old energy-saving ways, porch overhangs for example, with the newest in green technology.

I’m not suggesting a full-scale abandonment of larger homes but here, too, there are proven ways to reduce the energy draw. And considering that Victoria is warming up to free-standing backyard suites for parents or grown children, it’s not a stretch to envision the day when ordinary houses of more than 2500 square feet are reconfigured into two small homes for multigenerational families.

This is all good as we roll toward the uncharted transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. My tinted glasses off, I like what I see.

Writing this during the incessant early February rain, Trudy found herself straying to rain barrel research and predicts these could be her next big thing.