Home free

Not everyone wants to sink a huge amount of money into a pricey house. Meet some Canadians who opted for creative alternatives — and reaped a simpler life in the process.

At this point it’s pretty much a given: if we’re ever going to take the pressure off the housing bubble in Canada’s booming cities and suburbs, and if would-be homeowners are ever going to have even the slightest chance of buying into a scorching real estate market, we’re all going to have to get creative.

It makes perfect sense why. With the average price of a detached home in Canada sitting at nearly half a million dollars, and with young Canadians needing 12 years on average to save for a 20% down payment, alternative arrangements just might be the answer. Some of the options are more traditional, such as residing chez parents (one in three 20- to 34-year-olds are doing it), or living in basements, multifamily homes or cohousing units (think Golden Girls). Others are a tad more eccentric — such as the 250-sq.-ft. “little boxes” that German architects designed for urban roofs in Berlin or the van that one California resident turned into a home.

In the pages that follow, you’ll meet folks who have decided to forgo typical homes — and in one case, a cottage — for innovative alternatives. With more and more unconventional home styles springing up across the country, these are some of the spaces Canadians have chosen as their ticket not only to mortgage freedom, but to a simpler life.


The Rioux Family

Jason, 38; Victoria, 39; Celeste, 9; Renée, 7; Hunter, 2

Container cottage

It’s the weekend and that means one thing in the Rioux household — packing up the kids and driving two hours from their 100-year-old semi-detached house in Toronto to their 140-acre property near Bobcaygeon, Ont. But there’s no traditional cottage on the land; the old log cabin that once sat there had to be torn down, thanks to hungry carpenter ants.

Instead, the family built a unique, off-grid, all-season vacation home that can’t be beat when it comes to durability, security and keeping the unwanted parts of nature out. Dubbed the “octopod,” the Rioux’s weekend residence is built from seven recycled metal shipping containers. It’s a 1,350-sq.-ft. space with a central hub that acts as a living room. Containers branch out from the middle, each one acting as a separate room: there’s a dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms, a workshop and a TV room that doubles as a bedroom.

Rioux admits he’s a pretty handy guy, but this project was a huge undertaking that took a couple of years from inception to fruition — a chunk of that time was spent researching and working on design plans. With an interest in shipping containers used as homes around the world, Rioux learned everything he needed to know, from where to find containers (“any city that has a port has a natural buildup of shipping containers that you can buy”) to how to educate engineers so they could sign off on the structurally sound containers to satisfy building codes.

The family’s main objective was to spend $100 per square foot or less all-in, which means their final price had to include the power and water systems. Toss in their 3,000-sq.-ft. roof, concrete floors and glass doors (which are covered by the shipping containers’ steel doors when the family heads back to the city) and they still achieved their goal: in total, they spent about $120,000.

With such a cool, unconventional layout, it’s easy to forget you’re in a set of shipping crates. “It really feels roomy — there’s a lot of natural light from windows up in the roof and the patio doors at the end of each container,” Rioux says. He is also teaching his kids to conserve energy. Solar panels are used to charge batteries that provide power to the refrigerator, television and charging cellphones, and the space is also equipped with a solar water-pumping system. Plus, the kids are spending lots of time outdoors hanging out in nature — catching minnows and turtles, paddle boating — and not staring at screens.

Rioux is so passionate about this style of alternative living that he started a company called Sea Container Cabin that helps folks build their own one-of-a-kind shipping-container homes. He’s become quite the expert on design and construction techniques and off-grid energy forms, and offers one-on-one consultations for those interested in “creating their own creative residence.”

In the meantime, the octopod has garnered a following of fans. Last year the family hosted an open house as part of the Green Energy Doors Open initiative (which showcases success stories of sustainable energy dwellings and projects across the country) and ended up with 250 people — including a couple who flew in from California — trekking through the woods just to see the place. He’s keen to show families the other side of life. “There’s a desire for alternative living methods and although it’s not for everyone, it can work for people who are motivated by challenge and want to pick a different path. I’m excited to see people building their own unique projects.”


The Torrance Family

Leila, 27; Andrew, 31; Henry, 11 months

Tiny custom-built home

It’s fair to say that when it comes to her home, avoiding a big monthly payment ranks high on Leila Torrance’s to-do list. That’s one reason why, in 2015, Torrance and her husband, Andrew, decided to move out of their 1,700-sq.-ft., $2,200-a-month rental in Edmonton. The place was weighing them down — and not just financially. “We weren’t even using half of it. It was empty space collecting dust,” she says.

The couple packed up and headed about an hour north to Westlock County, Alta., where they bought a five-acre property for $50,000. At first they lived in a 22-ft., fifth-wheel trailer straight out of the 1970s. But in October 2017, they moved into a tiny custom-built home. The 350-sq.-ft. space has a kitchen, bathroom, living area and two sleeping lofts. It’s a fraction of the size of their home in Edmonton, at a fraction of the cost — this one was an affordable $85,000.

There’s a bigger-than-ever demand for tiny houses, in part because of their huge popularity on home-and-garden television shows. Robert Leonardo, a founding board member of the nonprofit Tiny Home Alliance Canada (THAC), a resource for people interested in building tiny homes, says there’s been an “explosion” in the movement since THAC launched in 2014. “At that time there were only one or two builders and no information out there. Canadians were asking questions about this type of living on US websites because there wasn’t really an industry here at that time,” he says.

Leonardo is interested in all things tiny homes — he spent a couple of years researching and reading everything he could find on the topic. When he and his wife realized they were getting “priced out of the middle class” in Ottawa, they decided to live a more minimalist lifestyle. They relocated to Loreburn, Sask., purchased and modified plans for their own tiny home and are now eagerly anticipating living in a 270-sq.- ft. space on wheels by 2019. Including appliances, cork floors, off-grid systems (solar and water filtration), Leonardo guesses his final bill will come to about $70,000. “There’s definitely a financial driver — we can’t control our income, but this is a way to control how much we’re spending on our home,” he says. “Whether you have money or not, larger houses equal larger mortgages, and people are highly motivated to get out of spending thousands each month on where they live.”

Other pros, of course, include eco-friendly living. Maryse Gauthier, quality assurance manager with Ilo Tiny House in Napierville, Que., says these homes use minimal construction materials. Plus, it’s easy to use green technologies to reduce your carbon footprint because the houses are built to work with solar panels. There is also a psychological advantage. “When you decide to downsize, you are making a conscious decision to get rid of stuff you don’t need — you only keep what’s necessary and that is very liberating,” she says.

Meanwhile, the Torrances, with some extra cash in their pocket, are looking forward to what their simpler life will mean. “We both have school debts to pay off and love to travel, so we wanted time and money to do that,” Leila says. “We’ve also been trying to get off the consumerism bandwagon. We want to be forced outside, spend less time cleaning and more time planning adventures.”


Michael Jeffery, 31

Michael Jeffery standing at the entrance of his Mongolian yurt

If there’s one thing that’s typical about university students, it’s where they live. If they’re not in their parents’ basements, they’re in dorm rooms on campus or in apartments they have to share with a roommate or two to make ends meet. Michael Jeffery wasn’t keen on any of these options. So he did what any skilled young man who feels comfortable in the great outdoors would do: he made his own lodgings.

In 2015, before becoming an Adventure Studies student at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, Jeffery built and lived in a Mongolian yurt (basically defined as a big round tent) on farmland on the outskirts of Kamloops. Fully off-grid, he had no running water and no electricity.

The idea to build this glorified tent hit him when he was working with at-risk youth in Regina (he had landed the job while on a hitchhiking trip across Canada). During his stay there, he had access to a woodshop and ended up building part of the yurt over the winter with the kids. He made the frame using lumber he cut down to size and pieced together with hardware, and he fashioned a covering from recycled billboard vinyl (not the typical yak felt or hide used by Mongolian nomads). When it was time to head to Kamloops, he simply packed it up (yurts are easy to transport, of course, since they’re favoured by nomads) and moved it in his truck.

Although yurts are usually fairly small, Jeffery’s was a spacious 444 square feet with seven-ft.-high walls and a 12-ft.- high peak in the centre (where he had a round skylight). “It was very large by traditional standards and actually too big for me — it took a lot to heat,” he says. (He used a homemade wooden stove for that purpose.) His yurt also sported a carpeted plywood floor, a kitchen, a queen-sized bed, plenty of storage, some benches, a place to study, a deck and “lots of room to do yoga, dance, play music and host gatherings. The most people I had sleep over was 23.” (It was university, after all.)

Jeffery spent nearly two years in the yurt — he even stayed through the winters. “The first one was a bit challenging; it definitely toughened me up. I gained appreciation for the simple things — fire, warm clothes, hot meals,” he says. Still, he valued being closer to nature and away from distractions such as Wi-Fi and television.

Having saved more than $20,000 in rent during his two years at university, Jeffery says he can now travel without needing to work full time. The 31-year-old is currently in Mongolia studying traditional yurts, and he plans to build and sell them, as well as live in one, when he returns to Canada in December.

To Jeffery, there are several reasons to make a yurt home: “financial freedom, simple living allowing for the more important things in life, living closer to nature, the satisfaction that comes from building your own home, being environmentally conscious and avoiding the bondage of mortgage.”


Getting municipalities on board

Compact home

Alternative housing such as tiny homes, yurts and shipping crates — is ideal for some folks, and although the demand is high and the interested demographic is varied (everyone from young families to retirees is getting in on the trend), there are serious roadblocks. While there’s no doubt these innovative homes could be viable ways to get around the skyrocketing price of average homes and the noticeable lack of real estate in some of Canada’s major cities, municipalities across the country are incredibly slow to give legitimacy to unorthodox dwellings. Bylaws don’t include zoning rules for the different types of nonstandard living quarters that are popping up, and policy-makers don’t seem to be in a hurry to change the rules when it comes to issues such as the minimum size of dwellings, the locations where these domiciles can be built and the building codes that need to be followed.

Take tiny homes — one of the more popular alternative-living options. Even though there are several groups in municipalities across Canada that are working to bring attention to getting zoning regulations approved for these homes, including Tiny Home Alliance Canada (THAC), there are currently no major cities or towns that allow microdwellings, as far as THAC’s Robert Leonardo knows. That is mainly because there’s confusion over how to classify and tax them. (For example, if a home has wheels, should it be classified as a recreational vehicle?) Under current city bylaws, tiny homes generally aren’t permitted because, depending on the municipality, the minimum size of a residence must be 400 to 700 square feet (and some tiny houses start at about 100 square feet). That’s why advocates are trying to get building codes amended to redefine the size of rooms, ceiling heights and hallway widths, among other things. Groups are also asking city councils to consider “tiny home villages” where folks live together in microhomes on a large piece of land (similar to a trailer park, but the houses are permanent structures). There’s still a lot of work to do, but there is hope in Canada: many states south of the border have updated their zoning bylaws and now allow alternative housing options.

THAC helped take a step toward change last spring by providing feedback to an interprovincial group that later made a submission (the Tiny Houses National Building Code Change Request) to Canada’s National Research Council. “It can take a while, but if our recommendations go through, it will make it easier for municipalities to get on board,” Leonardo says.