Saturday, October 24, 2009

Size matters: apartments getting bigger, houses getting smaller

Michael Geller, Special to The Vancouver Sun

Published: Saturday, October 24, 2009

Recently, I overheard a prominent Vancouver art dealer questioning the wisdom of Vancouver city council's decision to allow condominium buyers to rent out a portion of their apartments.

"How can anyone live in such a small space?" he wanted to know.

As an early proponent of the suite-within-a-suite concept, I was eager to respond.

While few of us would want to live in such a small suite forever, most of us have happily lived in very small spaces at some stage of our lives, when those were all we could afford.

Ironically, one of the benefits of allowing apartment buyers to rent out a small portion of their suites is that this might encourage the construction of larger apartments.

Let me explain.

Today, most new apartments have two bedrooms or less. Suites with three or more bedrooms are rare, since most developers worry that they will not be affordable by younger buyers, who make up a significant segment of the market.

However, just as many first-time buyers can afford to purchase a single-family home by renting out the basement, the suite-within-a-suite concept allows someone to purchase a larger apartment by renting out a portion of it.

Think of it as a mortgage helper in the sky. Over time, as the household grows or financial circumstances improve, the suite can be incorporated into the rest of the apartment.

While this idea will appeal to some, it will not be for everyone.

However, as apartment living becomes more acceptable for both "move-up" and "move-down" buyers, I hope we will see more three- and four-bedroom apartments being built close to shopping, transit and daycare. They will accommodate families with young children or households with an aging parent, a caregiver, or older children away at college. And just because these apartments have additional bedrooms does not mean they need to be overly large.

After all, many of the post-war three-bedroom bungalows built across Canada measured little more than 800 square feet. They still had room for a kitchen with an eating area, a combined living/dining room, and three-piece bathroom.

Compare that with today's "starter home." It is expected to have a double-volume entry, two-and-a-half bathrooms, a family room off the kitchen, and a two-car garage.

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the average size of a Canadian house in 1945 was just over 800 square feet; in 1975, it was 1,075 square feet; and by 2000 it was 2,266 square feet. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average home size in the United States more than doubled from the 1950s to 2,330 square feet in 2004, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970.

During the same period, the average household size decreased.

However, the trend appears to be changing.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median size of a new house dropped to 2,114 square feet in the fourth quarter of 2008, down more than 100 square feet from the first quarter of the year.

Perhaps in reaction to the "McMansions" that have been built across North America, there has also been a growing interest in very small houses. This has led to the "Tiny House Movement", which promotes smaller, detached single-family homes that can range anywhere between 65 square feet (yes, 65 square feet) and 750 square feet.

People are joining this movement for many reasons, but the most popular are environmental concerns, financial situations and a desire to simplify one's life. Devotees can join The Tiny House Village Network and read the Tiny House Newsletter.

This past summer, I went on a pilgrimage to Langley, Wash., on Whidbey Island, where local architect Ross Chapin has designed and built some wonderful tiny houses.

The Third Street Cottages project was the first to be built under this innovative code. The project is comprised of eight detached homes on four lots; they are approximately 650 square feet, with lofts up to 200 square feet, and are situated around a shared garden with a commons building and tool shed.

Parking is provided in garages and surface spaces separated from the housing.

The houses are one-storey, and although they are similar to one another, each is unique. Nine-foot ceilings, large windows and skylights add to the sense of space.

There is a surprising amount of storage, with walk-in closets, built-in shelves and an attic. Large porches, built-in eating alcoves and small nooks further enhance the livability and design interest.

As I look around our region, I cannot help but think that many people would like to buy smaller detached cottage-style houses such as these, especially if they were developed close to their existing neighbourhoods.

To make this happen, we will need to change our attitudes and zoning bylaws. We will also have to be prepared to share our living spaces and bathrooms, too, just like we did when we were growing up.

- - -

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, developer and Simon Fraser University adjunct professor. E-mail:


Monjayaki said...

Michael - Do you know if there are any official limitations to apartment size (i.e. number of bedrooms) in Vancouver? I was talking with someone from Richmond who said that 3 bedroom apartments are not allowed there - you have to buy a detached house to get that size.

Kristine said...

Michael - Do you know if there are any official limitations to apartment size (i.e. number of bedrooms) in Vancouver? I was talking with someone from Richmond who said that 3 bedroom apartments are not allowed there - you have to buy a detached house to get that size.

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