Until the onset of COVID-19, Mimi Shao loved living in her downtown Toronto condo with her husband and two young kids. At 900 square feed, its small-ish size never bothered her, neither did the lack of a balcony.
The marketing manager had a big enough kitchen to run her side hustle, a cake decorating business, where she somehow managed to bedeck tiers of sponge in macarons and sugar flowers, even with her five-month-old, Leah, strapped on with a baby carrier. Plus, “a condo means less to clean, less to manage, and the freedom of taking the kids to all the parks, all the great things in downtown Toronto within a short walk,” Shao says.
COVID-19 dimmed her sunny outlook. Her building’s amenities all closed. Her young son, Theo, was not terribly keen to wear a mask. And then there was the gauntlet of enclosed, busy spaces to get through coming to and from her place – the lobby, with crowds of people trying to pick up Amazon packages, the elevator, with all the buttons everyone had been touching. “I felt like we were stuck in a box,” she says.
Shao’s experience is increasingly common. From the most recent census data, in 2017, just more than 8 per cent of Canadians with kids lived in condos. But the number is higher in Canada’s largest cities – 13 per cent in Shao’s hometown. And, alongside increasingly steep prices for single family homes, and the number of condo-dwelling millennials now having kids for the first time, that proportion is expected to rise. The issue is no longer whether families will continue to live in condos post-COVID-19, but what can be done to these spaces to make them more habitable in an age of physical distancing.
To Shao, some fixes are straightforward. Sound proof walls would be nice, so that when she or her husband are working in one room, neither is interrupted by kids in the next one over. “It’s always tough to be on a call with kids crying in the background,” she says. If she ever moved to another condo, a large balcony would be a priority – the kind of terrace large enough to sit out on and have a meal, or put out toys (as opposed to the skimpy strip many condos have, which only seem sized for smokers).
Other condo owners have found a way forward with ingenuity. Zoe Meirovici, an early childhood educator, lives in a 700-square-foot Toronto condo with her husband, a one-year-old and a five-year-old. Pre-COVID-19, she was already a pro at making minimal square footage do maximal things, having turned the spare bathroom into a bedroom for her daughter, and a den into a bedroom for her son. During the pandemic lockdown, “our saving grace is that we built a rock wall in our sons' room weeks before COVID hit and we are lucky to have a big balcony for the kids to enjoy fresh air,” she says. “We also have a kid’s playhouse, a mini trampoline and a paint wall for the kids outside on the balcony.”
To solve the common parental nightmare of now needing a home that can also be an office and a school, Meirovici installed a dedicated if diminutive space for both her son and husband to do work side-by-side. “We built a small table attached to our bedroom wall that folds away and added a chalkboard above it,” she says. “We have also added more storage to the living room and to our daughters' room to keep more learning supplies.”
There are some issues she hasn’t been able to solve – her compact fridge was fine for frequent grocery shops, less fine for lockdown stockpiling. A kitchen reno might be impending, but she’s still optimistic about condo life with kids. “There are more possibilities than you may think,” she says. “And remember, kids need love and attention not a lot of space.”
The advice resonates with Thomas Garvey, a design professor at Carleton University whose background includes designing the smallest of interiors: space stations. “There is no real limit to the size people can inhabit,” he says. “A lot of it comes down to perception – the way someone feels in a space. It’s possible to feel a whole city, a whole country is too small.”
A hemmed in, anxious feeling might affect younger people particularly badly. “Being in lockdown for six months, a year – that’s a lifetime for a three-, four-year-old,” he says. “Their whole world has turned strange very fast.” To help little ones adapt to their new environs, Garvey recommends a little creativity to overlap as many functions as possible, breakfast tables that become school desks that become craft corners – a bit like Meirovici’s fold-away office in her bedroom. Embracing versatility is something Garvey had to do himself while living in a 160-square-foot space in Tokyo, a place where multi-functionality is highly common, because almost everyone lives in small spaces.”
Depending on how long physical distancing continues, it’s possible the overall design of condos might change, to make them more flexible and friendly for kids who can’t always play outside, in parks or at school. That’s a notion Anson Kwok is familiar with. He’s the vice-president of Pinnacle developments, which builds, among other things, condominiums. He and his wife are also raising a three-year-old and a newborn in a three-bedroom Toronto condo.
“One thing I’ve learned is that amenity spaces need flexibility, and don’t always need to be so heavily programmed,” he says. Maybe instead of cinemas and saunas, generic, seemingly unsexy multi-purpose rooms will be more ubiquitous. “Sometimes a kid just needs a long hallway or a hard surface to learn how to ride or scooter or bike,” he says. “The upholstered furniture was removed from our lobby at the beginning of the pandemic, because of concerns it was hard to clean. Kids just started playing on the tiled floor. I couldn’t have imagined that happening. But it works.”