Scaling Down

As single-family houses increase in size, some residents are giving up space only to find happiness in its place.

Photography Chris Wedman   

Kerri Timbers stood in front of the sprawling pile of everything she owned in spring 2014 and had a moment of existential pause. Following a breakup, she’d moved out of a three-bedroom home in Sherwood Park and hauled everything to a friend’s garage in Stony Plain, filling it.

“I stood there the minute we unloaded and looked at it and thought, ‘I have debt and I have all this stuff and I don’t have happiness,'” says Timbers. It made her think about the point of her high-stress job, and how she’d lived, as she puts it, without intention. “It was pretty much a moment of clarity.”

That was the day the downsizing began for Timbers. Soon after filling that garage, the 36-year-old business analyst found a 590-square-foot apartment in the basement of a house outside the city for less than $1,000 a month, and took only absolute necessities before eventually returning to digitize important documents, photograph keepsakes such as old Girl Guides uniforms, then dispose of most of her stuff.

The move makes her part of a surprising group of simplifiers. These aren’t empty-nesters getting practical about physical and emotional vacancies. Instead, Timbers represents those early in life who see more cons than pros to owning or even occupying a traditional single-family house. It isn’t easy to learn how to live within a smaller geographical footprint, but, for Timbers and others like her, the reward of downsizing can be freedom in how they spend their money and their time, and how they connect with their communities.

Timbers’ decision to live with less is in keeping with recommendations from the City of Edmonton, which suggests 500 square feet as adequate per person while being easier on energy demands. Nevertheless, Timbers’s efforts set her apart. Edmonton isn’t a small-house kind of town. Of Canadian cities larger than a million people, it has the lowest density: about 123 people per square kilometre. More than half of all homes are single-detached and, according to 2010 numbers, average 1,950 square feet (double that of 1975) to accommodate just three people.

CJ de Jong  imagines a day when he’s closer to that 500-square-foot ideal. Three years ago, he sold the decade-old house he shared with a roommate in MacEwan. The 36-year-old University of Alberta librarian liked walking in nearby parks and being close to South Edmonton Common, but he had a feeling of disconnection. Work required a lengthy commute by transit, with off-peak reduced frequency discouraging after-hours socializing with co-workers as well as downtown activities such as yoga. Besides, there was snow to shovel, grass to mow, or some other homeowner’s chore needing doing anyway.

Now in a South Oliver condo slightly bigger at 1,375 square feet than the main floor of his former house, “it’s a lot easier to say yes to things,” he says. “Living downtown, it’s so much easier for me to participate in things.”

Two blocks from an LRT station, he’s 12 minutes from work door-to-door, even closer to parks and nearer to downtown stuff he once missed out on, like his current volunteer work with the annual AIDS Walk. Condo-style living also makes it easier to take longer vacations, and he’s able to travel for three or four weeks every winter. All it required was a massive and hasty purge (bought the condo, had to unload the house ASAP) of unnecessary items of his own, his ex, and even of the previous homeowner. It was stressful, says de Jong, but a physical and psychological relief. “It took off a load.”

It also set new habits. One day, de Jong hopes to split his space with another partner, seeing no need to upsize. Sure, he has a walk-in closet, but “I still want to see, well, can I fit all my stuff in half of it?”

For Kenton and Melissa Zerbin, that would be a luxury. The recently married couple, both just under 30, are advocates of the tiny-home movement, which espouses living spaces of about 400 square feet or less. (Timbers, incidentally, is a co-founder of the YEG Tiny Home meet-up group, which attracts about 50 likeminded people to learn and trade ideas at the monthly events). Currently, they’re designing and building one on a 26-foot flatbed trailer. Late this summer, they’ll leave their 600-square-foot Little Italy apartment for their nearly finished but liveable new home, parking it on a Sturgeon County farm (considered recreational vehicles, they’re not legal residences in Edmonton). A total of 230 square feet, (with an additional 100 square feet of loft space) it will cost around $80,000 – a price Kenton believes to be reasonable compared to the average single-family house price of $439,982 Edmontonians paid this spring.

“One of the motivations for why I take the tiny movement so seriously is that I feel that people have normalized the concept of getting into half-a-million dollars in debt,” says Kenton, who makes a living teaching permaculture, a sustainable way of living with the land rather than just off it. Instead, the Zerbins want to spend on travelling and, later, starting a family in their new home, converting the loft into a nursery.

They understand the trade-offs. In addition to giving up time to work on the home, going so far as to learn to weld, they’ve reduced wardrobes, given up a full bathroom sink for the one in the nearby kitchen, sold seasonal toys like snowboards that can be rented, accepted limited privacy and the need for communication skills to keep peace in confined quarters.

“Rather than being a detriment to our relationship,” says Melissa, “it’s a positive thing” – and better than a mortgage. “I feel that would be more stress on our relationship than this.”

Timbers also continues to work at eliminating sources of stress. A kitchen-gadget nerd, she’s, well, paring back on utensils that clutter her drawers. She refrains from refilling her half-full closet. She foregoes a pantry, buying food almost daily.

As she empties her home, however, her life seems to become full. Her current job came with a 30 per cent pay cut from that high-demand one. Timbers puts the excess toward things like yoga and the tiny home group. Would she like a tiny house of her own one day? Probably, but even then she’s not setting any goals that may compromise her sense of freedom downsizing has already given her.

“I’m open to what life brings me,” she says – as long as it doesn’t take up too much space.

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