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Micro homes make sense

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The 2011 census family data recently released show that while married couples still reign supreme, making up 67 per cent of all families, new types of living arrangements are shaping home life in Canada.

The number of single-parent families jumped eight per cent in the last decade, making up 16 per cent of the total. One-person households represent 27.6 per cent of all homes. Moreover, the most typical family, at almost half of those counted, was a couple with no children. This partly reflects the aging baby boomer population, as well as the fact many young couples are waiting to have kids.

Experts will no doubt be advocating reforms to child care, health care and other policy areas based on these changes, but we should also consider what the shifting dynamics can mean for where and how Canadians live -- looking beyond conventional apartments, condos and detached homes to accommodate a population with increasingly varied housing needs.

In the 1970s, a group of families in Denmark came together to create a supportive, safer environment in which to raise their children. Dissatisfied with the isolation of conventional housing developments, where it is not uncommon to barely know one's neighbours, they designed a community to meet the needs of its residents and promote social interaction. The 'co-housing' movement was born.

Today, co-housing communities can be found across Europe, the United States and, increasingly, in parts of Canada (notably British Columbia) as well. Each self-contained house in these neighbourhoods is a distinct and private space, but what defines these 'intentional communities' is the incorporation of a number of shared areas -- gardens, guest quarters, exercise rooms or child-care facilities -- meant both to reduce the size (and therefore cost) of each individual residence, and foster stronger community connections and allow for mutual assistance.

During the school year, for example, residents can share meals in a large communal dining room, allowing those parents freed from cooking to spend time with their children. As well, elderly residents can remain an integral part of the community, tending the gardens or helping with child care.

While co-housing communities are most often meant for people looking to reside in quieter neighbourhoods, another new trend in urban design is geared towards the fast pace of downtown living. Especially popular in large and increasingly unaffordable cities, what has become known as the micro-apartment movement has at its core the belief that a small space, designed efficiently, need not be cramped or unattractive. Murphy beds, space-saving furniture, transforming walls and compact appliances are used to provide occupants with all the amenities of a larger apartment, but in suites just 275 to 400 square feet in size.

Vancouver recently became home to the first micro units in Canada. The New York Times described 'micros' as the apartment of the future, appealing especially to single people who do not require much space but want to live comfortably in the heart of the city.

Changing demographics suggest many Canadians would appreciate the support and social cohesion of a co-housing community, or the trendy lower-cost lifestyle offered by a micro apartment. Unfortunately, Canadian housing regulations make the construction of such unconventional properties difficult. Restrictions on the number of people who can share living spaces is problematic for co-housing communities, while a minimum suite size can mean micro-apartment complexes cannot be built. As well, municipal planners are often unfamiliar with these new concepts, which may make them unwilling to see such proposals move forward.

Governments at all levels should, where appropriate, work to remove impediments to the establishment of co-housing communities, micro apartments and other non-conventional housing projects. Reforming regulations and seeking to inform municipal planners and officials of the benefits of such new opportunities would allow for greater variety in the country's housing stock. It would cost relatively little but could benefit millions of Canadians who find their needs are no longer adequately met by more conventional apartments or detached, isolated homes.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2012 A11

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