Right sizing condos

I  hear the same complaints whenever a new condo building is proposed. They include the whine “there are no three bedroom units”, “too small” and “too expensive”.

Just maybe the developers are right, that the market needs small homes, especially starter homes. And maybe neighborhoods should realize they need a diversity of housing types, including purpose-built smaller units for smaller family sizes, rather than old houses cut up into a warren of cheap rooms. Consider that most “marriages” (formal or informal) break up and its rather silly to expect both parties to then occupy two large homes, so divorcee’s are a market too. And young (or elderly !) singles may not need or want a ground-oriented house.

The first  time I went to Paris, back in the last century (the 70’s), I was intrigued by the small size of Paris apartments. In my 19th arrondissement neighborhood the ones I saw were essentially bed-sits. My particular one had the toilet & bidet & sink (no shower required when there is a bidet) in the front entry of the apartment. That’s right, the hall door opened into a miniscule bathroom, then another door opened into the single room apartment (the building was somewhat elderly and the plumbing had been retrofitted).

Did I mention I was also a half block from the outdoor abatoirs? It was an interesting neighborhood.

Anyhow, I was intrigued by the suitability and acceptability of this small apartment. Because no one had a TV in their room, or even a kitchen. Essentially, the apartment was for love (it was Paris, after all) and sleeping. Living was done in the cafe’s along the street, along the boulevards, and the park at the end of the street.

Maybe it seemed so acceptable because I was a student, and unused to having a whole functioning apartment with a suite of rooms to myself.

I also notice that on each return to Paris, the apartments and the hotel rooms seem to get bigger, as old single rooms are bashed together to make bigger spaces.

It hasn’t escaped me that condo apartments in North America are getting smaller. Some are very small. Vancouver, as usual, is the leader in Canada, with some micro apartments getting lots of press last year.

And now NYC is getting into the action : http://observer.com/2012/07/would-you-ditch-your-squalid-share-for-a-300-square-foot-micro-apartment/

Some Ottawa developers have been floating the idea of micro apartments to community associations for some time. These micro units would be for a single person, and come fully furnished right down to the linens, and professionally decorated. All aimed at the single male techno-nerd moving upscale from the parent’s basement. As of yet, none of these local developers have actually built any of these units, that I know of. And, for reasons elaborated on below, I think a scattering of a few micro units in a larger condo building won’t work.

My kid is home from Uni, where he lives in a dorm room. It’s actually large by my outdated uni dorm standards, but what interests me is how satisfactory it is to him. It is convenient to fellow students and all his friends.  The dorm room functions because there are common lounge or living room spaces, and many cafeterias/restaurants.

My parents now live in a retirement residence. It’s pretty much like going to university. Their 522 sq ft two room apt is actually very large for the two of them, it would work just as well if one could lop off the first 10′ of the living room, making it a smaller 422 sq ft. apartment, or else made a bigger closet.

I used to stay over at the Journey’s End Suites at the airport strip in Mississauga. Those mini suites are a miracle of compact organization and neat space. I always wondered why they weren’t building something very similar as freestanding rental apartments. Now I recognize them as being essentially the same as the retirement residence apartments.

I talked to the corporation running my parent’s retirement residence, and asked if they had thought of providing a similar residence type aimed at singles or uni graduates starting out. I got an eager earful, that they were very cognizant of the market potential, but hadn’t yet been able to come up with a model that they felt would work.

I do recall that in California there are a number of privately-owned university residence corporations, including some run as “co-ops”, offering near-campus mini apartments or glorified dorm rooms. The one-room apartments are upstairs, the ground floor consists of a row of street front restaurants, usually a Subway , a coffee franchise, and some other franchises, and a storefront reserved for a non-franchise. These corporations are successful in getting market funded mortgages, breaking even on the rents, and providing affordable student housing. A number are now permitting graduated students to continue living there for some years. Naturally, the next step is non-student –  student housing. We are back to mini apartments again. Just like the formula that worked so well in Paris from the 1880’s on.

My view now of mini apartments isn’t that they are tiny versions of a freestanding home so much as grown-up dorm buildings, ones that promote an exciting and active street life with cafe’s and restaurant social life.

They are the exact antitheses of the suburban McMansions that attempt to replicate the entire urban experience within their own (boring, sterile) walls with the home theatre, exercise room, den/bar, showplace celebrity kitchen, etc.

As a society, we will have made a sea change when  CHEO starts offering mini condos as a prize instead of those oversized McMansions they now try to fob off as desirable dream homes.

Bring on the mini condos! Let Claridge or Mastercraft try copying the California model that seems to work there, and see if it will work in staid wintery Ottawa. I can see those selling well on lively west side streets like Somerset or West Wellington; or in the Rideau Street area.

8 thoughts on “Right sizing condos

  1. I have mixed feelings about mini-units. I enjoy owning a home, and it is a small home – no warren of rooms. Your description is similar to an apartment I rented a few years ago in Manhattan. It was one room with a tiny kitchen & bath. The original owner had lived there most of her adult life and through her elderly life. I loved it, loved the small size and mini features – but part of the love was that the apartment was in the heart of everything. I seldom spent more than sleeping time in the apartment – there is so much going on in NYC at all times of the year, you don’t need to sit around an apartment entertaining yourself. I was there with an infant & my husband too and we made the small space work. I don’t think Ottawa offers the same liveliness – or access to easy transportation, so people spend more time in their homes/condos/apartments here. We don’t have the luxury of a metro we can hop on to get all over the city. I think small apartments/condos/etc have a place in our neighbourhoods, but the city needs to support them in a way that Ottawa currently doesn’t do.

    1. Does the City need to support smaller units, or do we need mini-units to support the city? I think one of the reasons Ottawa is not a lively city is because even in central neighbourhoods, the densities are not all that high. The only high density neighbourhoods we have are Centertown and Sandy Hill. Otherwise, most come in at levels that are more comparable to the suburbs.
      Having also been to Paris, I can’t help but compare Dow’s Lake to a place like the Jardin Luxembourg. Both are beautiful parks that are meant to offer a place to sit a relax, in the heart of the city, or take in some landscaped beauty. Yet almost every weekend when I go for a picnic with my wife and son at Dow’s Lake, there’s little  activity, unless there’s something programmed there. The difference? The sea of small apartments that fills Paris provide the people to fill the parks (or shop at the shops, eat at restaurants, etc.). Clearly, our single-family dominated central neighbourhoods do not provide the same critical mass to animate our public spaces. whether people like it or not, high density living – fuelled by condos, it would be seem – are about the only way we’re going to get more life in the core.
      Eric, I am really glad tat you make the point that  not everyone needs a huge space. I live in the Civic Hospital Neighbourhood (can we have a new name, please?), and hear from many people that they are concerned about the lack of family-sized unts – as if there aren’t enough houses in the ‘hood – or that the units seem so small. On the later point, if you don’t want a small unit, don’t buy one.

  2. Vancouver is full of mini-units. An architect told me that they are so much better at optimizing space now (eliminating hallways, better ducting etc etc) that 500 sq. ft built in 2008 offers more usable space than 650 sq. ft built in 1960. My brother and his girlfriend lived for two years in 475 sq. ft (1 bedroom plus den amazingly) and they are now married, so it cannot have been too bad.

  3. My girlfriend and I lived in a 248 sq.ft ‘appartment’ for a while in the UK during an exchange. We had a blast and it indeed encouraged us to exlore the city, spend more time in pubs, cafés, etc. The appartement was for eating and sleeping and that was fine.

    I would love to see some of these micro-units appear in Ottawa. It may also provide a way for first-time buyers to get on the market more easily.

  4. I would like to hear more about the people making the complaints you listed about condos – ”there are no three bedroom units”, “too small” and “too expensive”?? They certainly aren’t the people shopping for condos. From what I have seen, 3 bedroom units take forever to sell, the smallest units sell out first and most projects sell very well – so the buyers clearly don’t think they are too expensive . . .

    1. The people most often complaining about a lack of three-bedroom condos, or that they’r too small, etc., tend to be the ones who don’t want them in the neighbourhood in the first place. It’s a subtle form of NIMBY, at times.

  5. Eric, great article as usual. Just one minor point though: the plural of “café” is “cafés” not “café’s”. An apostrophe never indicates pluralization. Similarly, the plural of “divorcée” is “divorcées”, not “divorcee’s”.

  6. Great article Eric. Here at Windmill Developments we are exploring the possibility of the EcoFlat (micro condo) in Hintonburg (look for details to start trickling out soon). It is exactly the kind of neighbourhood where you can ‘live on the street’ (in the best possible way) and sleep/love in your condo. We’ll see whether the market embraces it.

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