I recently spent a long weekend with the family in the New Forest. We were staying with my inlaws, and as ever, my two girls had a wonderful time, with most of it spent playing in the garden. This might not seem like the key attraction for young kids when visiting Grandma and Grandad given the constant spoiling, endless attention and boundary pushing that they normally receive. But the garden carries an enormous novelty with our kids, as we don’t have one.
We’re a bit of an oddity amongst our peers, and our children’s peers, as we live in a two bedroom ground floor flat – not a house. Miller and Neva share a spacious bedroom, there’s no garden but we have access to a communal courtyard and there’s a great choice of local parks and green spaces. Our location also boasts an enviable 15 minute train ride into Central London. We love it, it works for us (add caveat of ‘currently’ works) but a lot of people don’t understand how, or why we choose to do it.
We’ve been questioned and challenged about our choice of home enough times now to begin to question our own resolve on the subject. What do we do? Do we move? With a sketchy outlook on financial certainty both here in the UK and elsewhere, coupled with rising house prices and low stock availability go to make buying a new home (house or otherwise) seem far from possible.
There’s a popular myth in the UK about needing lots of space, especially a house with a garden, once you start a family. But this is not the case for our European counterparts and for those families who chose to live in more urban and metropolitan areas where apartment living is the only viable option. Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Prague are perfect examples.
In an effort to understand and perhaps reaffirm my belief of home choice I caught up with Alison Mazurka who understands all about compact living. Alison and her family are proof that living small is achievable with a family. Her blog 600sqft documents her families creativity, commitment and enjoyment of apartment living in their home city of Vancouver.
D.A.D: Can you tell us a little about where you live and why you started your blog?
AM: We loved our city. We loved walking everywhere. We loved our street with cute coffee shops, stores and restaurants so we were never bored. And we loved our 600sqft one bedroom apartment with high ceilings and big windows. Then we had a baby… And everyone said we had to move… But we didn’t. And so far so good. Doing our best to live small and thoughtfully in the city with our toddler Theo and and baby Mae.
I started the blog after Theo turned one, and we realised we liked living in our small space with our child and wanted to share the ins and outs of our choice, to hopefully encourage others to live small or celebrate that they already do, rather than be embarrassed. We were heavily inspired by Life Edited and the Graham Hill TED talk to minimise our belongings to make room for kids in our small space. In the last year we have added Mae to our family and while the transition to four humans in 600sqft has been challenging we are newly committed and invigorated to make our small space work for us. Living small and within our means allows us the city (ie. walkable) life we enjoy and the means to travel and holiday more.
D.A.D: Why do you think people struggle with the idea of a family living in an apartment?
AM: I think there is some embarrassment or shame attached to having your family live in an apartment. At least it feels that way in North America. That if you live in an apartment you are depriving your kids of some ideal life. But I think opinions are finally changing.
D.A.D: Do you think people’s measure of quality of life is actually measured in sqft?
AM: Definitely not! But I do think you need to let go of preconceived notions of what a home “should be” and instead be grateful for what you have. Kids don’t need a playroom, they just need a place to play. You don’t need a bedroom, you just need a comfortable place to sleep. Once we started questioning what was really important to us, our space seemed much bigger and better than we initially thought. We measure our quality of life in our health, happiness and experiences. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the space we live in, we do! But our space is not everything.
I think quality of life is about the quality of your relationships and what you do with your time.
D.A.D: Where do you get inspiration and ideas from to help you evolve your home as your children grow?
AM: I often look to Instagram and other blogs to learn how other families negotiate small spaces and find creative ways to live together comfortably. One of the reasons I started my blog was to share our attempts to live small, with fewer things to shed light on how to live small with kids but also to hopefully find a community of like-minded people. I’m grateful that others share the ins and outs of living small or city living so I can learn from them too. Some people I look to for inspiration are: Our nest in the city, The Minimalist Mom and Read My Tea Leaves.
D.A.D: Do you have any ‘hacks’ be it life, IKEA or other you would recommend to aid compact living?
AM: Well we couldn’t stay in 600 sqft apartment with four people without our wall bed from Resource Furniture.
It is clear that Alison and her family love their home and have mastered their space to maximise the use of it. They are also not deluded in the idea that they can stay in 600sqft forever.
My wife and I are certainly spurned on by what can be achieved with small spaces. A paper published in 2012 looked into recommendations for living at Superdensity in London, with a section focused on making flats work for families. Stating the slightly obvious that houses tend to have more appeal than flats, especially to families with children, but that there are ways of replicating the benefits of houses in other dwelling forms, utilising external space, layout out of shared spaces and the availability of three bedroom properties.
However, the main focus of the report is the assumption that housing families in flats is, and will remain, a necessary consequence of pressure on land, especially in cities. The challenge for the designers and planners is to mitigate the downside of flats and apartments.
Images provided with thanks by Alison with permission from Blue Window Creative.