This is part of the Difference Makers, which highlights some of the people working to make Canada a better place in 2022.
Mark Shieh understands the power of transformative spaces – he started his career working as an Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company, designing theme parks. “I still have a little of that pixie dust in me,” he says, recalling how transfixed he was by the magic of Disney’s parks and how they felt like the happiest places on Earth.
In his current role as a real estate developer, he thinks about how the places we live in shape us and enrich us too. But he’s older now, so he’s considering different questions, like what are the most sustainable spaces to live in? How can we live more efficiently in smaller spaces? And how can we live well together, as thriving, supportive communities?
The answer he and his business partner, his sister Leslie Shieh, hope to unveil by the end of 2022 is a pioneering project called Tomo House, a shared housing development in Vancouver that offers private living spaces alongside plenty of communal spaces and amenities that are designed to reduce expenses and foster a sense of community. Co-housing projects aren’t new – there are more than 40 such communities in Canada already, according to the Canadian Cohousing Network – but what makes Tomo House different is that it’s developer-driven. So instead of the aspiring homeowners paying the upfront costs of purchasing land together, hiring contractors, managing construction and navigating permit and approval processes – a cumulative workload that can defeat would-be co-housers – Mr. Shieh’s development company, Tomo Spaces, is doing the work.
So far, eight of the building’s 12 units have sold. The buyers have helped shape the design and decided on things like layout and shared parking spaces. Mr. Shieh and the co-housers call their development model “co-housing lite” because it makes shared housing accessible to more people. And while the cost of individual units isn’t cheaper than regular market housing, he hopes that prices will come down as more developers and home-seekers embrace the concept.
As more do, he thinks they’ll discover the pleasures of community living that he has experienced in his own life: His current home is in a restored Vancouver schoolhouse he developed that includes units for his sister, his mother-in-law and two other families. A shared walkway connects their backdoors, he says, and “that’s where the serendipity happens.” The families see each other and connect, he says, and act as a community. When it snowed in Vancouver this December and he was out of town, he knew he could depend on his neighbour to shovel his mother-in-law’s walk.
“That’s what we want Tomo House to be about,” he says, noting that Tomo stands for “Together, more.”
“We want to expand what it means to be neighbours – expand that into friends, into chosen families. It’s all about encouraging small, local, everyday actions that are about taking care of each other.”
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