Smaller Homes, Bigger Lifestyles

Given high land values in the city’s core, lot sizes and new urban homes tend to be somewhat smaller on average than your typical suburban home.  Some people don’t like that.  These people pine for the the big country estates of a bygone era.  They may imagine themselves as estate owners in reruns of ‘Gone with the Wind’ repeating unforgettable lines like; ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’, or they may simply believe that a smaller space will feel cramped and/or there won’t be enough room for the kids to play.   Regardless, this represents dated thinking.   Not only is this thinking largely out of step with the realities that are possible today with smart home design, but by prioritizing size and the perceived benefits of suburban living, these people are missing out on a “bigger” richer lifestyle that urban communities can offer.

Let’s consider a few of the flawed ideas that some people have about suburban living:

  1. We need a big backyard so the kids can play
  2. I want a large home, to accommodate our family, all our stuff, and to create a feeling of luxury – a retreat from the pressures of my day
  3. Suburbs are safer than urban communities
  4. I can afford more house in the suburbs

Okay, now lets analyze each one in turn.

  1. Backyards:  First it is important to acknowledge that most new homes in Ottawa’s urban communities do have smaller yards. That is one of their features.  These smaller yards demand much less maintenance, and in many cases the landscaping has been designed to be more environmentally sound as well as involve less effort to maintain.   The home owners can feel better that they are reducing their impact on the environment – improving the lot of future generations – and they have more time to enjoy an active and diverse lifestyle.  But what has been sacrificed in the process?  Not much!  According to a multi-year study in idyllic California;  “Evidence shows that for all we lust after [backyard] sanctuaries, such retreats have little to do with the lives we actually live”.  In fact, children spent on average only 40 minutes, and adults, a mere 15 minutes in all of the outdoors each week.  “These families had sunny Southern California weather. They had nice porch furniture, trampolines, even pools. They just didn’t use them.”   The study concluded; “All this would be humorous, except that yards come with externalities. A family moves to the exurbs for a private patch of green. But to buy less than six minutes a day of play and 2 minutes of adult leisure, the parents pay with increased commutes”.
  2. Spacious retreat:  Suburban homes do have the edge on new homes in Ottawa urban communities when it comes to square footage, but again, the California study found that more than often this ended up being a liability and not the sanctuary that it promised.   Larger spaces encouraged more accumulation of stuff, purchased at big box stores, that were seldom used.  It found that this reduced the useful space in houses and created stress on the family.  In addition, large “costly master suites for parents … were hardly used”.   Moreover, these large homes are designed to be affordable to more people, and so care is almost never taken to make these homes space efficient.  Much of the space is wasted, and doesn’t add to quality of life, or a feeling of luxury.   In contrast, new urban homes are designed and built with space efficiency and luxury as top design goals.   Builders of new infill homes understand their market is seeking luxury and a sense of speciousness, and unlike their suburban counterparts, these builders can’t just build big.  They are constrained by the physical dimensions of the lot and so they need to be more innovative in their design and construction.  The best of these builders work effectively with creative architects and have mastered the art of creating extraordinary spacious feeling homes, that exude luxury.    We’ll touch on some of these techniques in a separate post.
  3. Suburbs are safer:  According to Ottawa police statistics more crime is reported, on a per capita basis, in urban areas than in suburban neighbourhoods.  This isn’t surprising considering that the major crime hotspots are located within the urban core.  There are a few isolated areas that get reported in the news, but outside of those areas the difference between suburban and urban crime is less clear.   Moreover, an American study has found that the gap in crime rates between the suburbs and urban communities has been steadily declining over the past 20 years or so.   And despite this difference in crime rates, studies have consistently shown that it is actually safer to live in cities than quiet rural communities.
  4. Affordability:  The cost per square foot of new homes in the suburbs is going to be less than that for new condos or new infill homes in urban communities.    The cost difference is driven by two factors suburbs is going to be less than that for in the case of freehold urban homes.   First, the higher cost of land needs to be accounted for, and secondly these homes are custom designed and built, and so this will incur an extra cost over cookie cutter, mass produced houses that are typical in suburban developments.   So if that is what you are looking at, yep, you will be able to afford ‘more’ house for your dollar in the suburbs.   But, if you care about spaciousness (feel and utility of the space) as well as true quality design and construction, then we believe that many well designed and quality built new infill homes win the day.  If you then factor in community, the ambiance afforded by mature trees and communities, access to key amenities, and reduced commutes, the best value option becomes new urban infill homes.

Increasingly people are prioritizing experience over ownership, when if comes to products and services.    Urban living promises so much more in terms of time to spend enjoying life, ready access to activities and amenities, and diverse yet connected communities than is available in the suburbs.   So for many people the choice has become either a “big house” or a “big lifestyle”.

In an article found in the National Post a couple of years ago, McGill architecture professor Avi Friedman claimed;

“Canada’s housing stock is drifting toward the European model … If you take the typical Canadian home and take out all the wasted space, you have a European home”.   This is what you can find today in many new infill homes available in Ottawa’s urban communities.

 

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