All these big houses

We Shedders are a cautious lot. So when we began exploring the idea of retiring en masse to the country, we decided to test the waters by finding a big house to rent together. In this way, we would find out whether we were indulging in a naïve utopian dream or discovering a grounded and more fulfilling way of living.

So we located and took a two-year lease on a big house, one where each couple could have our own private space as well as a big communal area where we would share much of our lives.

We’d chosen a wonderful old house right on the shore of a small bay in inner Sydney. In the way of old houses, it had experienced a numbc9.2er of incarnations. At one time in the house’s history, it had been a lively family home with several children and their friends filling its myriad bedrooms with noise and energy. In recent years, it had become an empty nest. Its owners, one of whom worked and one who was busy with charities, must have had a challenge keeping the halls from echoing.

Then the owners set themselves up on a small yacht on the Mediterranean and the Shedders moved into the house – six of us plus a teenage son. We filled the space with possessions and activity, with laughing and entertaining and squabbling and meetings. We enjoyed the big gardens; we hauled the kayaks out of the boat shed to paddle on the quiet bay; we fully appreciated the beauty around us.

We also had a taste of the savings involved in living together in this fashion. We managed the rent on an expensive waterside property without breathing hard (well, not too hard), we made a few joint purchases, and we discovered new economies of scale. We shared the work and the responsibilities.

That big home encountered a new kind of family, and probably experienced a bit of adjustment with us. It wasn’t quite the normal thing for an up-market suburban dwelling, but the house coped. The six of us did as well. By the end of our two-year lease we had discovered that living communally was quite to our taste, and we’d created the first draft of a roadmap for how we’d manage together.

Allow me to switch stories.

For the last few weeks while Rick and I’ve been in Canada, we’ve been staying with my mother in her home on the water at the north end of the city of Nanaimo.  She and my father built the bungalow-style house 30-odd years ago, on a short street that, at the time, ended where a charming log cabin was buried deep in sheltering trees. Beyond were many acres of rainforest where you could walk the paths that wove among the tall trees, picking mushrooms, watching for birds and enjoying the damp smells.

Over the intervening decades, that’s all changed. The acres of forest have been supplanted with hundreds of tall homes, reaching as high as they can in order to capture the views of the strait and mountains big housebeyond. The houses are massive. They fill the lots, each brushing elbows with the equally massive one next door.

When I went for a walk along those streets the other day, I thought of our Shedders house designer.

John Basden used to be a boat designer before he branched into solar-passive architecture. He thinks efficient and small. He’ll build big for people who want it; he grumbles that the people who can afford him are the ones who always want a big home. But when he talks about the kind of house he loves, he’s not talking about covering the earth with construction. For example, in his plans for his own home, there’s a studio for his design work, a kitchen where you can actually reach out and touch the appliances, a small bedroom where his boys can come and spend the weekend. He reckons no football teams will need to play a game in his lounge room, nor will there be a requirement for tennis matches in his bedroom.

But I digress. This post was not intended to pay homage to small houses, nor to beat up large ones. But rather its purpose is to explore what may well be a huge potential for co-housing in the future.

My thinking was triggered by a comment several months ago from a friend, Nina, who talked about the big house she lives in – now all by herself. She loves her house with its ocean views, but now that it’s an almost empty nest, it’s expensive to maintain. She thinks it’s just plain inefficient.

In a similar vein, I recently received an email from a reader who is further down the track with this type of thinking. “My husband has been talking about [co-housing] like a dog at a bone for the past 8 years since his mother was forced to move into a nursing home,” she says. She goes on describe the big house that she lives in with her husband. They are in an area that they enjoy, and don’t want to leave the city. However, their house is huge, making it expensive to maintain and a little lonely. They’ve begun thinking they’d like to open up their home to include a few fellow travellers – co-spirits with whom they could share their lives – and expenses.

I imagine that while gnawing on the bone, they speculate about how this all might work in terms of ownership by the tenants. Could it become a true shared home, co-owned by the residents? (Check out a wonderful book, My House, Our House: Living Far Better for Less in a Cooperative Household, written by one big house’s three owners). Or would the current owners offer long-term leases to the residents? Could the house become a strata community? How could the owners become “benefactors” in what Adele Horin calls the “benefactor model” of communal sharing? What are the simple, safe and thought-through methods of incorporating new folk into an existing household?

This of course makes me think about those big houses in the development out past the log cabin on my mother’s street. When all the ambitious young owners climb off the corporate wheel, are deserted by the kids, and want a simpler but still social life, will they think about opening their ample patio doors to others?

In an excellent Boston Globe article, Introducing the Retirement Commune, Dr Bill Thomas, “an influential geriatrician and author based in New York”, describes our boomer generation as having “comfort with interdependence”. That means we like living together and can be creative about finding ways to make that work. If that’s true, there’s no end to the possibilities in establishing cooperative households.

Hmmmm. So then, here are some of the pieces in the Great Housing-of-Tomorrow Jigsaw Puzzle:

  • There are all these big houses out there.
  • There are all these people who would like to live more closely connected to other people.
  • There are all these Boomers with insufficient retirement funding.
  • And we humans really have no great need for vast areas of empty floorspace.

What picture will emerge as we become more adventurous in how these big houses of today get used to solve the problems of tomorrow?


9 thoughts on “All these big houses

  1. Interesting. At least a couple of years ago I had an informal conversation with a local developer. Clearly forward thinking and with his ear to the ground, he was already looking ahead to the day when his company might be in the business of converting these very large single-family homes – McMansions as some call them – into new configurations that could be shared by multiple retiring boomers.

  2. HI, Heather,
    Greetings from the ‘burgh!
    Just last week, Karen checked real estate stats to discover 180 5-bedroom homes for sale in Pittsburgh that have the prerequisites to be cohouseholds for 3, 4 or 5 people. In the past, we partnered with a realtor, offering information for agents about cooperative householding. We still want to pursue future partnerships with realtors, because we believe they would benefit from more information about co-owned home sharing, such a smart option for many people, and yielding multiple real estate transactions.
    Our house isn’t by any means a McMansion, but 3,000 sq. ft, including attic suite (Jean’s territory) and finished basement (“rumpus room,” Kali the cat’s bedroom, and guest room) offer ample personal space and shared space.
    We also read the Sally Abrahms article you quoted. There are just so many configurations of intentional community! People can age in community and age in place, saving money at the same time. The only surprise: why more people haven’t done it already. But they will.
    Thanks for another thought provoking blog piece. Reminds me that I promised to start contributing more to the My House Our House blog.

  3. In the ’90s I recall the state government embarked on a project to increase the density of established areas, or ‘the rape of the suburbs’ as I called it.

    Large blocks got subdivided and gained ‘standard dreamhomes’ as backyard neighbours. The original front house got a double carport in the front yard and the old driveway serviced the rear block. The rear houses were usually standard ‘outward looking’ designs, close to other ‘outward looking’ homes supposedly designed for their yards, so none of it worked very well.

    As I suggested recently on my facebook page, subdivision is usually done for INCOME rather than OUTCOME, so everybody was happy – maybe.

    BUT, if the original house owned by the empty nester was kept, or sold to a standard small household, and the new oversized backyard ornament was occupied by a similar small household we still have the problem of too much built space and not enough unbuilt space.

    It would have been cool if groups of friends had got their hands on the original large home on the large block, saved themselves some money, had more time to do what they wanted rather than what pays the bills (not many of us have jobs where retirement is illogical) and enjoyed the lifestyle that shared housing can provide.

    There are lots of ways to improve the energy efficiency of an existing building, because most older buildings are pretty bad, and there’s always work going on to find greater efficiency without too much rebuilding.

    An interesting field and one that more people should think about – good to know that occupancy requirements are being applied in some areas.

    • Great comment, John. Yes, filling all the big houses isn’t a solution, unless we get seriously overpopulated, which isn’t going to happen this century. Too late for some areas like my mother’s neighborhood.

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