Nanaimo man’s micro-house concept rewires definition of compact, affordable living

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

and three levels of government are starting to pay attention

Lena Sin

Neither an architect nor a builder by trade, James Stuart was inspired to build his pilot Twelve Cubed house by the story of a homeless woman who burned to death while trying to keep warm by candlelight. He has lived in the house, above, for five months. Krista Bryce — nanaimo Daily News

Is it possible to live comfortably in a house that measures just 12 feet by 12 feet — a footprint smaller than a giant billboard and only slightly larger than a garden shed?

Well, some habits might have to change, such as learning to put things away immediately and downsizing the size of your wardrobe.

But according to James Stuart, the answer is a definitive “Yes.”

Stuart would know. The 46-year-old Nanaimo resident moved out of his 3,200-square-foot house five months ago and into a tiny house measuring just 144 square feet — smaller than most master bedrooms.

Its saving grace is a 12-foot high ceiling, hence its name, “Twelve Cubed.”

“[My friends] were all thinking I’m crazy, that there’s no way you can live in 12 feet,” he says.

At a time when homelessness and housing affordability continue to be major issues, Stuart’s micro house is rewiring the definition of compact, affordable living — and it’s catching the eye of municipal, provincial and federal governments.

For homeowners looking to lower sky-high mortgage payments, Stuart says his micro house has the potential to bring in rental income as a coach house built in backyards.

And the idea is gaining attention, with 172 people expressing an interest in buying a Twelve Cubed home.

Stuart is neither an architect nor builder by trade. A former military man and salesman, he’s more of an ideas guy who channelled his anger into a bright idea.

The seed was planted in December 2008 when he read about the tragic death of a Vancouver homeless woman who burned to death while trying to keep warm by candlelight.

“There are lots of people here with million-dollar houses and great lifestyles and everything, and some poor woman burned to death trying to stay warm in Vancouver. It just got me really mad,” says Stuart.

It also got him thinking: How small could one make a house? And not just a shell to keep warm in, but a stylish and comfortable home.

With doodles on a paper napkin, the concept started to grow.

“The key is to think cubicly,” he says.

With an innovative movable floor system, Stuart says the house can accommodate two levels that are each seven-feet high, underneath a 12-foot tall structure. Counting both levels, a homeowner would have about 288 square feet, including a bedroom large enough for a double bed and closet, plus a bathroom, kitchen and living room.

Last September, Stuart finished building the pilot house, but most of his friends were still skeptical. They wagered $5,000 that he wouldn’t last six months in it.

Stuart’s now just one month away from collecting the prize, which will be donated to the Salvation Army.

“The comment was: ‘You’ll never get anyone to live in this.’

“I’m a big believer in that if you’re going to get someone to do it, you might as well have done it yourself first. So I said, ‘Alright, I’ll move into it this winter.’ And oh, you should’ve heard the laughter at that one,” he says.

Carolann Stoll, a Nanaimo acupuncturist who’s interested in a Twelve Cubed as a rental suite, admits it’s difficult to understand until you see it.

“Seeing is really believing. I love the idea of something being so compact and providing so much. It seemed like an unbelievable concept, and when I saw it and moved through it and laid on the bed and stood at the sink and looked at the windows and took in the space, [it felt] a lot bigger than 12 by 12,” said Stoll.

Priced at $24,500 (not including water, sewer and hydro hook-up), Twelve Cubed is much cheaper than building a coach house, which could easily cost upwards of $120,000.

With so much interest, Stuart has partnered with builder Pheasant Hill Homes, which is currently building a show home. The partners are looking for a building plant and predict it will be summer before any units are available for purchase.

Coach houses, also variously called laneway or carriage houses, are still a relatively new concept in B.C. — but one that’s catching on as cities continue to grapple with housing affordability and a tight rental market.

Each municipality has its own zoning regulations, and buyers need to check with their own municipal regulations to determine if a Twelve Cubed home meets their city’s standards.

In Vancouver, a pilot project for laneway houses was approved last year. Regulations stipulate that houses must be at least 280 square feet to a maximum of about 500 square feet on 33-foot-wide lots and 750 square feet on larger properties.

In Nanaimo, coach houses were approved in 2008 with no minimum size requirement, but they cannot be larger than 750 square feet.

Victoria is now considering a policy that would allow coach houses to help ease the city’s rental shortage. A report is expected to go to city council in about six weeks.

But Stuart still dreams that his micro-house will one day be used to house the homeless, the original inspiration for the venture. He believes that Twelve Cubed houses could be easily erected on small-lot holdings owned by municipal governments and scattered throughout a city.

So far, he has had only curious inquiries, including a visit from a provincial assistant minister as well as a call from a federal official. The city of Abbotsford was also interested in learning about Twelve Cubed as a social-housing solution, he says.

He’s glad they’re asking.

“If I could get a measurable decrease in homelessness, I’d be the happiest guy on the planet,” says Stuart.

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