When Akua Schatz and Brendon Purdy decided to blog about building their 500-square-foot laneway house in Brendon's parents'backyard, they never imagined it would strike such an international chord.
But the need for affordable housing in urban environments with sky-high real-estate prices is not unique to Vancouver.
Response to their blog http://buildsmall.blogspot.com/ has come from as far afield as Ireland and Malaysia and as close by as their next-door neighbours.
"People have e-mailed us from all over the world," says Ms. Schatz, a 33-year-old masters student in urban planning who built most of the interior of her tiny home with her partner, Mr. Purdy, a 34-year-old photographer whose before-and-after images document the construction process on the blog, "offering advice and asking for tips on building small and building green."
A neighbour across the road who read the blog came over one day to offer suggestions on cedar staining for their new patio.
"Blogging about building our home (designed by Vancouver's Smallworks Studios/Laneway Housing Inc.) introduced us to a whole network of people we never would have met otherwise," Ms. Schatz says.
In turn, Ms. Schatz (who also works as a community fundraiser for the Suzuki Foundation) tapped into online info on shared equity arrangements in cities such as London and Hong Kong, places where, like Vancouver, real-estate prices tower above average incomes but sharing land and housing is more commonplace.
When Ms. Schatz and Mr. Purdy met as co-workers at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Ottawa several years ago, they never thought they'd one day be building an environmentally friendly laneway house together in his parents' backyard, let alone blogging about it. But love can lead you on strange real estate journeys, to say the least.
After a year of hammering, nailing, sawing and hoping, they are now ready to move into their little green house. It packs a lot into its 500 square feet of living space, with a palette of polished concrete and stained white oak flooring, small, European, energy-saving appliances and a glazing-rich indoor/outdoor aesthetic. With its flat roof, high ceilings and second storey loft-like bedroom/living space and balcony, it's the love child of an urban cottage and a downtown condo.
Their journey to this place began when Mr. Purdy's mother, Barb, a Vancouver physiotherapist, had a stroke four years ago. The young couple decided they would move to the West Coast to be closer to Barb and Brendon's father, Roger, and ended up renting the basement suite of the senior Purdys' 2,200-square-foot Arts and Crafts-style home - typical housing for the area.
But when zoning bylaws changed in 2009, Ms. Schatz and Mr. Purdy decided that a laneway house might well be a workable solution to their housing needs.
"We never would have been able to afford to live in Dunbar otherwise," says Ms. Schatz, who was shocked at Vancouver real-estate prices when she first arrived, "and we wanted to be close to Brendon's parents."
"And we wanted to be close to our kids and our future grandchildren," says Roger Purdy, an environmental engineer who rolled up his sleeves and pitched in with his wife to help the young couple build their house.
After a shared equity agreement was arranged - one that clarified the actual land value belonged to the elder Purdys while the actual laneway house was owned by the young couple - a neat inter-generational housing solution was born. And Brendon's older sister Erin even came in as a partial investor. "We say the bathroom belongs to her," says Ms. Schatz, only half-joking.
But then the hard work - and drama - began. In March, 2010, en route to an initial design meeting with Smallworks in its Southlands studio, Brendon was hit by a minivan while on his motorcycle. But despite his broken leg, the couple carried on with their housing mission.
They decided on a West Coast Contemporary Smallworks design, one with ample glazing and high ceilings to maximize space. Once the prefab exterior of the house was assembled on site, the couple did most of the interior work - with the exception of some tricky wiring and plumbing - on their own. But saving money wasn't their entire raison d'être. (The total budget for the 500-square-foot, two-storey house with a 200-square-foot garage and tiny crawl space was $280,000)
"We wanted to build the house ourselves because it really gives you a sense of self-empowerment," Mr. Purdy says.
"And we like learning new things," says Ms. Schatz, who seems to have earned her stripes as a handy daughter-in-law.
"She's amazing," gushes Barb Purdy, whose health has greatly improved since her son and daughter-in-law moved back home, "I remember coming home and seeing her bent over a table saw, cutting a two by four with great gusto. She really got right into it."
Ms. Schatz is most proud of her handmade pony-wall cap, a tricky process that involves fitting three pieces of wood around the top of a low wall. "I remember completing it on my own while Brendon was out of town. I was really pleased that I got it right - and I called him afterwards to brag."
The process was not all smooth sailing, however. It involved sourcing inexpensive, green and often recycled building materials, such as the PaperStone countertops, a job that took them to a factory on the outskirts of Seattle. Especially for the trickier construction bits, one can see how the blog also functioned as a sanity saver.
"It was the stairs that were pivotal," says Ms. Schatz. "The measurements were very exacting, and if we didn't get one component right, we would have to tear down the whole thing and start over. And we couldn't build anything more until we'd finished the stairs."
In addition, the building guidelines kept evolving and changing and since their green laneway house was one of the earliest on record, the couple were both precedent setting and, in many ways, guinea pigs for the new housing experiment.
"There's a building code requirement dictating that for every articulated space you have to have a sprinkler," Mr. Purdy explains. "As a result, we have eight sprinklers in a 500-square-foot space."
But despite the many challenges, Ms. Schatz, Mr. Purdy and his parents seem to have made it through the whole process with their relationships intact. As they pose for photos in the backyard that bridges two generations and two housing types, they are the picture of a close-knit family.
Some of their neighbours, however, are less than warm and fuzzy about this new kind of density in the conservatively designed neighbourhood. The latest Dunbar Residents Association newsletter was dramatically headlined, "The Death of the Single Family Home Neighbourhood."
But Ms. Schatz sees that as a good thing.
"By building small and green and sharing the (33- by 122-foot) lot with Brendon's parents, we're also saving farmland and forest from being destroyed to create suburbs where the young can afford to live."
"And if things don't change soon, this will be a neighbourhood full of elderly people living in big empty houses," Barb Purdy says. "I mean, how much space do we really need? I'd rather be close to my family."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Akua Schatz and Brendon Purdy are holding a public open house Saturday, June 18 and Sunday, June 19 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. For directions, see their blog, http://buildsmall.blogspot.com/
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