Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The prototype for James Stuart's microhouse outside of Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. It's 144 sq. ft.,with a full-sized bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and living space.
The prototype for James Stuart's microhouse outside of Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. It's 144 sq. ft.,with a full-sized bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and living space.

Living spaces

The little house that went to market Add to ...

As a lot of boomer parents already know, the high cost of living means young adults are staying at home a lot longer than they used to.

Karen Maycher came up with an idea to help her 24-year-old daughter, a college student, save money and still have the autonomy of living on her own.

She plans to install a 12 by 12 square foot micro-house, complete with kitchen, living space and bedroom, on her property for her daughter to live in.

"It's cute, but not a whole lot bigger than your standard garden shed," Ms. Maycher says.

"Once she's done with it, it's something we can rent out at a later date and it's going to bring in a positive cash flow."

Ms. Maycher, a bookkeeper who lives in Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island, says the building is a good investment for mother-daughter relations as well as her pocketbook.

"It's so hard for these kids. When I went to college, I could barely manage it, but I did have my own place. Nowadays, it's just not feasible for them to go out there.

"And the environment thing is really important too - use up as little space and as little resources as possible. Yet you're still able to have a reasonable quality of life. I don't know how anybody can go wrong with these houses."

Their size gives them another advantage too, when housing a young adult: "They're not going to be big enough for parties," Ms. Maycher adds.

The micro-house, or cube, is the brainchild of James Stuart, a securities salesman who retired from the army in 1992. He wanted to build the smallest comfortable living space possible, thanks to a uniquely moveable floor that doubles as a ceiling. Mr. Stuart, an avid fan of CBC-TV's venture capital reality show Dragons' Den , is an ideas kind of guy.

"I've always got stuff going on," he says. "This is my first crack at this."

Mr. Stuart was inspired to design the world's smallest home after learning of a homeless woman's death more than a year ago. The woman burned to death in her makeshift shelter in downtown Vancouver while she was using candles to try to keep warm.

While talking about the tragedy in a bar, Mr. Stuart and friends started tossing around ideas to build small homes for people in need.

"Then we started doodling an idea," he recalls. "And we wondered if it would work. A year later, I'm living in it. You can't do something for other people unless you'd do it yourself."

Mr. Stuart has been living for two months in the pilot project for a green micro-house that pulls only 12 volts of power for everything except the microwave and dishwasher. His prototype was built with the help of builder and designer friends, and is located outside of Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. They went through three prototypes before settling on one that worked.

"It's 144 square feet, but if you think a bit creatively, you actually have 1,800 cubic feet," Mr. Stuart explains. "Into this space, I have put a full-sized bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and living space."

His idea for homeless housing has evolved into a design project for anyone who needs affordable extra living space. Ms. Maycher said her micro-house will cost about $24,000 - more affordable than building a modest basement suite.

Mr. Stuart has already taken orders for his micro-houses, and has deals in the works with two Vancouver Island developers to construct four of them. www.twelve3.ca

If Jake Fry has anything to say about it, the small house is the way of the future. Mr. Fry's Vancouver-based Smallworks company has been building infill and 250-square-foot studio houses for the past five years. But he wanted to make small houses that would fit onto most of Vancouver's single-family residence lots, known as laneway houses.

"We wanted to provide better family housing and better utilization of land, and to do it smaller," Mr. Fry says. "We're hoping the 5,000-square-foot home goes by he wayside a bit. It is a waste of a resource. People can have what they have, but there's no real option [for smaller]out there."

Last July, the city of Vancouver passed zoning and guidelines for laneway houses, which are about 500 to 750 square feet in size and can include a second storey that is no more than 60 per cent of the size of the lower floor (to avoid box-like buildings).

Mr. Fry's company has constructed a house that can be dismantled into 14 panels and rebuilt on site. Its uniqueness involves a basic unit comprised of a full bathroom and small closet area that holds the house's power systems. The prefabricated walls and floors are assembled around the unit. The house includes a built-in garage and built-in shelving and storage, made possible because the insulation is on the outside walls, not the inside. In a house that's only 500 square feet, every nook and cranny must be carefully considered.

"We can build a house in a day and a half," Mr. Fry says.

Smallworks is currently constructing three such prefab homes and has applied for six more permits for others.

The first laneway house is nearing completion in Vancouver's Southlands neighbourhood, where the Smallworks operation is located. Inside, the house feels spacious, and much larger than its 630 square feet (plus 250-square-foot garage).

The house will be on public display at David Lam Park throughout the Olympics. Afterward, it will be relocated to an east side park so it can be studied for its energy production and efficiency.

"We will monitor it over the course of three years and gather data, and introduce new systems on an ongoing basis, and get feedback from them," Mr. Fry says. "We invested a lot of money in this technology over the last couple of years and we're excited by it."

The total cost, which includes design, project management, appliances, millwork, hookups, and permits, is about $200,000 to $250,000 for the average house.

Mr. Fry says the new zoning, which applies to about 85 per cent of the city's RS zoning, was essential for Smallworks' growth as a company.

"We invested a lot of money in this technology over the last couple of years, and we're excited by it," Mr. Fry says. "We would like to revitalize the idea that a smaller house can have a cachet to it. And be the builder of choice for the small house."

Among its many uses, the house would work well for an elderly parent who wants to live near family but maintain independence. If the parent should go into a care facility, the laneway house could be rented out to cover those costs, Mr. Fry says.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @goldiein604


In the know

Most popular videos »


More from The Globe and Mail