Small miracles in housing 

WHA forum looks at initiatives used around the world

A look at smaller and more compact housing initiatives at a Whistler Housing Authority forum this week left some audience members wondering where Whistler goes from here.

"How do we take that next step?" asked one audience member after hearing presentations from three guest speakers at Wednesday’s Smaller and Better workshop, the first in a series of forums hosted by the WHA.

Local realtor Stuart Munro echoed this concern, adding that he was feeling the same level of frustration as he did at the municipality’s first sustainability workshop designed to chart Whistler’s future.

"Are we going to get more specific?" he asked.

He was told that discussions specific to Whistler’s needs and the town’s potential development sites are still further down the road.

For the time being the objective of the forums is to inform and engage and to get people thinking about the provision of liveable, workable and accessible homes for the community, said Tim Wake, general manager of the WHA.

In the coming months there will be forums covering green building, seniors housing and co-housing.

Wake asked the audience to keep in mind that the municipality is looking for resident housing in three distinct forms: seasonal, for the workers who are in town for a season or two, long-term rental, for those who are here a little longer, and ownership, for those looking to make Whistler a permanent home.

The two-hour forum, which filled about three-quarters of Millennium Place over lunchtime, covered a variety of examples of compact living in other communities, which may apply to Whistler’s distinct needs further down the road.

Kevin McNaney from Smart Growth BC delved into the idea of making communities less sprawling.

"What is a smart community and how do we get there?" he asked the audience.

"We need to build communities complete and compact that avoid sprawl."

To have a complete community McNaney said there has to be a mixture of land uses, from commercial to industrial and residential, in the same area. There also has to be a mixture of the types of housing, from condominiums and single family homes to rental suites and seniors housing, among many other things.

To complement this idea of a complete community he offered suggestions about a compact community. He said towns could explore the possibility of allowing smaller lot sizes and lessening the setback requirements and the minimum square footage requirements.

If towns once made the zoning bylaws he said, then they also have the ability to change those zoning bylaws to accommodate some of the Smart Growth principles.

The second speaker, Jim Toy, is a principal in the False Creek Design Group in Vancouver. The company has been working with design concepts for small living spaces ever since the average size of a one-bedroom home in Vancouver dropped from 800 square feet to less than 600 square feet.

"There’s really no secret when it comes to designing small spaces," he said.

He provided a variety of slides showing how to maximize storage space and scaling down furniture to fit in smaller spaces.

"By adopting just a few basic ideas... you can come a long way in what the final outcome is," he said.

"It’s small space 101."

The final speaker Alex Zimmerman, environmental stewardship manager at B.C. Building Corporation, piqued the audience’s interest with a British example of very compact and very sustainable living.

The brand-new high-density site in southwest London is an example of people trying to lessen their ecological footprint on the planet. Their initiatives ranged from a car club, a system of collecting the rainwater to use in the toilet system, and the ability to generate most of their power on the site.

"Now you’re part of the solution and not part of the problem," he said of the people living in the site.

The initiatives and examples of ‘smaller and better’ living were not appealing to everyone in the audience

"I’m already doing this guys," said Munro.

He explained that he lives in a 1,200 square foot home with three children.

"More chicken coop-style accommodation isn’t making me real excited."

Councillor Kristi Wells, who is also chair of the WHA, pointed out that there is a new resident task force currently examining non-cost housing initiatives.

She added that the community will really be able to sink its teeth into different housing directions during the next steps of the comprehensive sustainability plan in the coming months.

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