Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Suburban Slow Home Case Study

Exactly a year ago tomorrow, I wrote a long post about living slowly and sustainably in the suburbs that I'd like to revisit. (Go reread it and meet me back here, mmmkay?)

The approximate floorplan of our new home, not to scale.
As I've been showing friends our new home, I've noticed that I'm a bit embarrassed by it. It's bigger than I feel like we need. It's one street over from million-dollar mansions with ravine access, whose property values we might be lowering by parking our dinged-up 12-year-old Toyota in our driveway. The master bedroom and ensuite all by themselves have more square footage than my first apartment. Almost every surface finish is some variant of builder beige.

So far, not so slow, right? But that's actually part of the plan. We wanted a house with great bones, good solar orientation, and a big enough lot for a large garden, in or near the new-urbanist neighborhood where we were already living, where we can live for the next couple of decades. We got all of those things with this house, plus a great location that's well-connected to recreational walking paths and the bike trail network, and good proximity to amenities (a yoga studio two blocks away! close enough to school and groceries that we can theoretically live car-light!). Unfortunately, there aren't many houses available in our neighborhood that meet our criteria, so we compromised on getting a bigger house than we were looking for in order to get a bigger yard; our other choice to get a bigger yard involved moving neighborhoods and living through a stressful renovation of an older home. Our new home will be a case study in gradually customizing a fairly typical builder-basic suburban move-up house to make it a slow home. I hope documenting it here will be helpful, given that about half of North Americans live in suburbs. All those houses and the infrastructure that serves them are already built, so discussing ways to slow them down and make them more sustainable is worthwhile. You'll be able to follow our progress on this blog using the tag 'slow home case study'.

Here's our to-do list, in no particular order:

- When we took possession, we did a little painting and moved in, then held off unpacking all the boxes while we worked on repainting and staging our old house for sale (watch for a post about that soon!).

- Now that our old house has sold, we will move our remaining furniture, then gradually invest in a mix of antique and new furniture to fill the obvious gaps in the new house. Right now I know those gaps include a sofa bed for the 'bonus room' to allow family movie nights and accommodate visitors, and book storage to replace the built-ins we left behind.

- The next step in personalizing our home will be to add architectural moldings, paint walls, hang artwork and family photos, and unpack the rest of our things (and purging more things we don't need or use as we unpack).

- Obviously, since this is a slow home makeover, I'll be looking to incorporate ideas from Slow Home Studio's courses and Slow Your Home's bootcamp as I fine-tune our floorplan and work out what else we need to do. I'll also be following my own advice and bringing local materials, the work of local artisans, a sense of place, and a timeless design aesthetic to the decorating scheme.

- A big goal for this summer is to get the kitchen organized for efficiency, to allow home baking and canning to happen, and make it easy for us to make more of our own food from scratch. (My daughter has asked me to start teaching her how to cook. I am so excited about this! Especially since the disruption of moving is the perfect time to incorporate healthier eating and exercise habits into our daily lives, and switching from processed to homemade will help us accomplish that. Slow food FTW!) We also will consider adding cold cellar storage and/or extra pantry space in the basement. 

- We also need to get the garden in the back yard properly set up with a play area for the kids, raised beds for planting veg next year (so the dog doesn't play on top of the seedlings, like she's prone to doing now), and the perennials (divided from the mature garden at the old house) and fruit trees (including a seedling Evans Cherry transplanted from the old garden) planted; this will include removal of a fungus-infected hawthorne tree and replacement with another fruit tree. Oh, and we should arrange outdoor furniture on the back deck for eating al fresco and entertaining, and add a shade structure since it's currently only useable in the evening. Someday I'd like to have hens, too, but since (a) they're not legal in my city yet and (b) sharing a yard with our bird-dog might be stressful for them, that will have to wait.

- Meanwhile in the front yard, the door and porch need paint, and we need a pair of chairs and the existing minimal landscaping (and dead tree) replanted to make the front of our home more inviting. Right away, we will set up a bin or two of outdoor toys and bubbles and chalk so our children play with other neighborhood kids on the sidewalk, and I'd eventually like the sod pulled up and the area relandscaped as a Japanese garden with a small kid-friendly bamboo fountain, some boulders the kids can play around, and a stepping-stone path through the plantings - so it would double as a decorative space and a place neighbors would actually enjoy hanging out and building community. I need to think about whether the front garden would be xeriscaped with a high proportion of native plants, or whether my concerns about urban food security will mean I choose edible landscaping - both approaches have merit. I also need to consider the neighborhood rules with respect to landscaping (which are mostly written to prevent people from creating no-maintenance gravel 'gardens', W00T).

- Bikes are already taking over the garage, so we need to get a compact bicycle storage arrangement in place. My youngest won't tolerate riding in a rear seat instead of pedaling for much longer, so we also need a bicycle setup that allows easy bike rides for me and the kids to school and grocery stores to minimize our car use (although the kids can also take the yellow bus starting in autumn). I already have a pretty sweet vintage 3-speed roadster with front and rear baskets that I use for shopping trips.

- Obviously we will also want to do an energy audit (probably through new local nonprofit eco-retrofit specialists C Returns) and start making improvements to our home's energy and water efficiency - this process will definitely get a separate post or five. The house already is relatively efficient, being only four years old, so I predict that the energy audit will suggest a lot of little things that can add up to make a difference, like repairing gaps in insulation and adding caulk. Our budget won't allow us to strive for net zero any time soon, but I also think replacement toilets (TOTO dual-flush) and a solar installation (possibly via Enmax's new Generate Choice program) will be happening at some point, and I'd love to install a sun tunnel into the windowless laundry room.

- An easy and obvious green project will be to set up an air drying area in the laundry room, and install an unobtrusive (retractable?) clothesline in the back yard.

- To add character and useful features to the house, we'd like to add built-in bookshelves and window seats, and add trim to make the interior architecture more authentic to the period it's attempting to reproduce. I suspect that the Not So Big House book series will be consulted alongside the Arts-and-Crafts/Craftsman/Mission/Prairie reference images for ideas.

- A practical way I can make a difference will be to make a point of riding my bike to shop at neighborhood businesses (especially the mom-and-pops) and the local farmers' market, and requesting bicycle parking where racks haven't been installed yet by developers. Both the Mary Poppins Effect of seeing a mom running errands in street clothes on an upright bike and the presence of more bike racks should encourage other people to use their bicycles (and I can vouch that there are plenty of families riding for fun and errands in the more mature New Urbanist neighborhood next door where our old house is).

- We are aiming to do nightly rides and walks with my family to explore all the local paths, to increase our familiarity with the neighborhood and get more exercise - and, when we are in the ravine proper, to get the kids exploring nature and seeing the animals and birds that live down there. My husband is actually using the GPS features of his phone to map all the unmarked trails through the sanctuary while he is walking our dog, which he then plans to annotate and add photos to before making it public on GoogleMaps. I'll let you know when that project is posted.

- We will also eventually finish the basement to make the house useable as a multigenerational family home, so that the square footage per person ratio becomes more appropriate. For now it will just stay unfinished playroom and crafting space, but there is room for another large bedroom, living area, and plumbing roughed-in for a bathroom, so adding a kitchenette to make it an in-law suite would be a relatively simple proposition. If we will be doing this, we'll need to also apply aging-in-place criteria to our design decisions throughout the house, such as ensuring that doors and hallways are wide enough, lighting is bright enough, flooring has enough cushion (cork?), and larger rooms have enough soft furnishings to prevent echoes (although we can't do much about the multi-level floor plan).

- Setting up the room closest to the front entry as a studio and home office appropriate for client meetings will facilitate both a home-based business and a telecommuting work arrangement - and will be crucial for supporting my goals of finishing rewriting my business plan and relaunching my career once both the kids are in school full-time.

- Since the choices made for a slow home should last forever, we will also need to keep the likely long-term effects of global economic crises, disruptive technologies, and climate change in mind as we make each decision - and we will need to do all this frugally (so we can pay down our debts as quickly as possible). This will involve a lot of time, research, creativity, and willingness to make things ourselves.

Any other ideas for things I should add to our to-do list for the Suburban Slow Home case study?

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