For years, Carol Buss has dreamed of living in a collective society based on mutual aid and camaraderie.
But when the health-food store owner found that such utopias are hard to find in Toronto, she decided to create one in her Cabbagetown row house.
Ms. Buss started by hiring an architect to transform her dowdy Victorian into a modern and light-filled dwelling designed for the separate but interwoven lives of adults.
Now she is looking for people who share her vision.
“I know I’m not alone in this,” she says, relaxing under the soaring ceiling of the new great room. “I’m trying to make this dream happen.”
According to the most recent census, single-person households make up 27.6 per cent of the population in Canada and the trend is growing, says Statistics Canada. Given the steep cost of living in major cities, Ms. Buss finds it baffling that more working adults aren’t driven to share. There’s the added benefit of reciprocal support – especially as people age.
“At some point, I don’t want to live alone,” she says. “I guess I want to share more life.”
She enlisted her friend and real estate agent Jen Tripp of Homelife/Realty One Ltd. to help her plan the renovation and execute the search for housemates. As the two chatted with a visitor recently, Ms. Buss pointed out that the pair are long-time friends but they find it hard to spontaneously get together because of their schedules.
Ms. Buss figures lots of working adults would appreciate going home to someone who would share some conversation and maybe dinner.
“Or if you’re both home and you’re both out of groceries, you might say, ‘Let’s go shopping.’”
With so many apparent advantages to collective living and so few people doing it, she began canvassing people to find out what the barriers might be.
Not many women and men she’s talked to want to relive their experiences of living with roommates. Individuals are too quirky and they end up squabbling over kitchen cleanliness and whether or not to keep a cat.
At the top of the list?
“Everyone wants their own bathroom,” she says.
Once Ms. Buss could visualize the right backdrop for a harmonious household, she had to figure out how to renovate the century home she had owned for more than 20 years near Carlton and Parliament. She brought in architect Maurizio Trotta to create what amounted to an entirely new dwelling on the second and third floors.
“We’re going back to the brick,” the architect said. “What style do you want?”
She told Mr. Trotta she wanted the house to be clean, open and light.
“It used to be so dark. It always felt like when you got home, the day was over.”
She was also tired of caring for an older house. She plans to be in charge of cleaning so she wanted to make maintenance easy.
“Living in an old Victorian, I had seen enough trim in my life.”
City regulations dictated that construction would have to include fire escapes and fire separation from rental units on the main floor. Local rules required that she preserve the historical facade. She also added insulating materials to dampen sound and vibration.
Once the fundamentals were taken care of, she worked with Mr. Trotta to design a new plan which places the large, open kitchen at the centre. There’s one living area at the front overlooking the street and another at the rear where housemates can gather to watch television or bask in the light of floor-to-ceiling windows.
Upstairs, two furnished bedrooms at the front of the house each have their own bathrooms. Ms. Buss deliberately didn’t incorporate sitting areas because she doesn’t want housemates to spend all of their time in their rooms.
In years past, Ms. Buss has taken in foreign students for home stays. There was lots of conviviality when they all shared a home computer, she says.
“Someone would be reading, someone would be on the computer and suddenly, we’d all be going to play tennis.”
Once the students all had cell phones and laptops, they would retreat to their bedrooms.
“I learned from that.”
Her own bedroom is towards the rear, and beyond that a large home office and studio, which also contains the exercise area and laundry facilities. The open, loft-like design makes that room partly open to the living area below.
Part of Mr. Trotta’s aim was to make a family dwelling but with flexible spaces so that they can be adapted for life’s transitions.
“He said, ‘Sometimes you have to trust your architect.’”
The rebuilt house has been extended at the rear, with the addition of plentiful skylights and four walk-outs to decks and balconies. The hardwood floors are imported from Denmark and the comfortable sectional lounges are all new.
One thing Ms. Tripp thinks her friend got especially right is the luxurious kitchen. Ms. Buss has doubled up on the important things: two refrigerators, sinks, ovens and work areas. The built-in coffee maker, microwave, toaster and steam oven are all provided. Housemates will have a couple of small areas for their dry goods, but mostly, Ms. Buss expects to share her batterie de cuisine.
“I have drawers full of stuff.”
Ms. Tripp wonders aloud if the future occupants might prefer to bring their own kitchen gear or heirlooms such as their grandmother’s china. But Ms. Buss figures the arrangement will work better if the housemates are looking for a fresh start, as she was.
“I can’t solve everything. I’m looking for the person who’s ready to make the choice,” she says. “This isn’t for everybody but I think it’s an option.”
There’s a large island and a seven-foot-long wooden table will provide a place for communal meals.
The one thing the owner of Lennie’s Whole Foods hasn’t supplied is a place for frozen food. The large refrigerators have no freezer compartments.
“I believe in local and fresh.”
Ms. Buss is considering charging each housemate rent in the $1,800 range. Of course, a fixed rent is a departure from the socialist principle of “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs,” but she figures that charging a negotiated or flexible amount would be too messy. “The commitment is different to the plan.”
Now, she and Ms. Tripp are pondering how to find the right people.
Ms. Tripp explains that just advertising shared accommodation or rooms to rent isn’t ideal because it could draw people who don’t necessarily share the same philosophy. “They need to share the space for economic drivers instead of quality of life drivers,” Ms. Tripp says. “They’re completely different dynamics.”
Ms. Buss points out that advertising for a roommate isn’t the right approach because there are two fridges and no one is sharing a bathroom. “There really isn’t a category for shared living.”
To help her ensure that applicants will mesh with the household, she has drawn up an informal questionnaire with questions about which sports the individual plays and which hours they work. She asks, “what do you like best about your best friend?”
Ms. Buss is open to housemates who are male or female, of any age and nationality. She’s easygoing about lifestyles and taste in music. The idea is that mostly they will have fun.
“Everything we do would be so nice to do together.”