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For half a century, most Canadian households followed a familiar convention: The nuclear family occupied a house with a yard and perhaps a picket fence. But the suburban dream always had gaps, and in a time of economic and demographic change it’s clear that many Canadians will be living in different ways. Home prices and rents are punishingly high, forcing younger adults to rethink where and how they will live. Many Canadians are aging, and their needs are changing. As of 2017, 22 per cent of Canadian adults – and 38 per cent of seniors – had one or more disabilities. What kind of models will define the way we live next? The following four spaces are flexible homes that provide access to nature, light and air, and places where we can find community.
Vancouver: Full House
A multigenerational home that can take different shapes
Homebuyers will sometimes talk about a “forever house.” One Vancouver family is taking that impulse more seriously than most: Their custom home in Kitsilano is designed to last not just their lifetime but for generations to come.
Designed by architects Leckie Studio and interior designers Gaile Guevara Studio, the dwelling presents restrained form to the street: It is a black box whose vertical slats half-conceal expanses of glass. A narrow slot courtyard cuts lengthwise down the centre, its surface planted with small trees and ground covers. Out front, a lush garden steps down toward the lower-level suite and up half a level to the front door.
This modest mass conceals a wealth of spatial complexity and flexibility. The steps up to the front door are very shallow. If the residents later need a wheelchair or other mobility aid, an accessible ramp can be constructed on top of the steps.
For the moment, the homeowners’ family of three occupies the main and second floors, which include three bedrooms and an office. A tenant occupies the half-sunken garden suite, which includes a bedroom on the main floor and another one below.
But all this turns on a single pivot door on the main floor. If that’s locked into a different position, then all three levels of the house become one dwelling – albeit with two kitchens, and the possibility to live entirely on the main floor.
“The spaces are less discretely defined than in a conventional house, which allows for a lot of things to happen,” says architect Michael Leckie. “The spaces are not associated with any particular family member, but with a certain stage of life.”
Ultimately an elderly couple could live in a semi-shared arrangement with their children and young grandchildren, while adult children or tenants live in the basement. “The house can either grow or contract with our needs,” says one of the homeowners. “And that lends a lot of peace of mind.”
The house’s design is meant to provide different options for extended families, just as the postwar “Vancouver Special” did. But in this case the house can be converted with no construction required, simply by locking one door into a different position. As Leckie argues, this provides the family with a sort of insurance against the astronomical costs of housing in Vancouver. One, two or three separate households can comfortably occupy the place. “I can see myself living there for a real long time,” the homeowner says. “I can see it supporting my goals and my family’s goals for the future.”
Montreal: Mikkel and Cait’s House
A fully accessible urban home
“When I was climbing the stairs to my third-floor apartment, I didn’t think that would ever be a problem,” Cait Phillips recalls. “And then, suddenly, it was.” Phillips, a Montrealer, suffered a spinal-cord injury in 2016 and became partially paralyzed. Mobility challenges, which are common among elder Canadians, became part of her life.
Phillips and her partner, Mikkel Paulson, suddenly found themselves moving in together and looking for a home that was physically accessible. But the suburbs were not for them; they wanted to remain near their favourite city neighbourhoods. And while larger apartment buildings could provide elevator access, very few of their units were fully physically accessible.
So instead, Phillips and Paulson rebuilt a house. The couple purchased a 1907 greystone in Outremont near Jeanne-Mance Park, and worked with local firm ADHOC Architectes to make it fully accessible. “Our goal was to make the house what we needed, but also to make it beautiful,” Phillips says.
This was a challenge, beginning with the basic problem of how Phillips would enter the house. Its main level is a few metres above ground, and heritage restrictions made it impossible to build a lift on the front. Instead, ADHOC designed a three-storey rear addition with an elevator that links the three levels of the house with a rooftop deck. (The elevator added approximately $100,000 to the cost of the house, Phillips said.) They also designed a new garage (replacing a parking pad) that made room for the couple’s accessible vehicle. “The entire addition was devoted to accessibility,” says ADHOC founder François Martineau, who led the design along with project architect Anna Rocki.
The architects and clients had to make major changes in order to provide full access for Phillips, while at the same time preserving many of the original features of the 1907 interior. The main-floor kitchen was fully renovated to make space for a wheelchair, and to provide cabinets and shelves that Phillips could reach comfortably. ADHOC rebuilt the principal bathroom with an accessible shower and a counter under which a wheelchair can fit.
All this required careful space planning and co-ordination. Walls needed to be framed with extra capacity to anchor grab bars that can support an adult body. At the same time, the architects chose a sophisticated marble-look porcelain tile for the surfaces, creating a space that is both elegant and deeply functional. Today, Phillips says, the house suits her and feels warm and comfortable. “We are living,” she said, “the way we want to.”
Muskoka: Muskoka Fairvern Long-Term Care
A public long-term care setting that will provide personal care for residents
A dinner table for 12. Herbs grow in planter boxes on the kitchen wall; outside, people gather in Muskoka chairs around a firepit. None of these things have the air of an institution, and yet they will be part of daily life for residents of the Fairvern long-term care home in Huntsville, Ont. The new facility, which recently broke ground on the site of a previous home, represents an emerging model in long-term care. It feels like home.
Fairvern “represents a move away from a medical model to a social model,” explains Tony Ross, a principal at Montgomery Sisam Architects. “What’s most important to the resident is at the core.” Fairvern’s three-storey building will house 160 residents in groups of 13 to 14 people. This small group – which the architect likens to an extended family – is the basis for the facility’s staffing and also for the social life of its members. They share a lounge and outdoor space and typically dine together.
The building, run by the District Municipality of Muskoka, will be divided into four “houses,” each of them housing one group on each of its three levels. Each group will enjoy its own lounge and kitchen, with an adjacent outdoor space either on the ground or an enclosed terrace. “A daylight view and access to outdoors are fundamentals,” Ross said. “You can smell flowers; you can go for a walk. Our bodies have a need to be outdoors.” These spaces will include gathering points, such as fire pits, and generous plantings of birches or yews. A garden is not expensive, within the context of long-term care. And yet such facilities have generally failed to provided good outdoor space. Ross and his colleagues at MSA aim to fix this.
The norm in Canadian long-term care has been to organize long-term care around bigger groups of residents, up to 32 in Ontario. But this puts a burden on staff, who have to manage the needs of a large group. And it is also psychologically challenging for residents. A smaller group can be “less intimidating and feel less institutional,” Ross said. This is especially important because a majority of long-term care residents have some degree of dementia or cognitive decline.
The architects are designing the building to make them – and everyone else – comfortable. The architecture and interior design are intended to feel domestic. Montgomery Sisam are choosing wood-look flooring, varied finishes and bright colours, Ross suggests; while the details are still being finalized, one concept image depicts a kitchen with aqua walls and sunny yellow backsplash tiles. This is far from a standard institutional vocabulary of white walls and muted accents.
A small group of people; a personal touch; access to nature; some colour and light that brings the atmosphere of home. All of these elements seem intuitive. Why, then, have they not been the norm in long-term care? Part of the answer, Ross suggests, is cost. It is less expensive to build and to staff facilities around the model of a larger group. “But we think we can do better,” Ross said, “and everyone is committed to that.”
Toronto: Sisters of St. Joseph
Opened in 2014, this residence is a winning example of what living well in retirement can look like.
“How can we take care of ourselves, and take care of each other?” A decade ago the Sisters of St. Joseph, an order of Catholic nuns in Toronto, began working on a new home for their order, and those two questions shaped their their thinking about the project. The result was a 58-room facility, designed by the prominent firm Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, that could serve as a retirement home for the sisters and provide high-quality care as the group aged.
And the facility has done just that, said Sister Marcella Iredale, who has lived there since it opened nine years ago and has been a member of the order since 1950. The building “really lends itself to some people’s need for privacy,” said Sister Marcella, “and it also lends itself to people’s need to be together.”
The residence occupies a site overlooking the Don Valley just outside downtown Toronto. Seen from the air, the building forms an “S,” curving its way from west to east. The northern, valley-facing side is clad in an iridescent brick. On the south side, which faces a residential street, a layer of glass hides behind protruding fins that provide a degree of shading and visual privacy. Windows on both sides of the building open, allowing outside breezes to pass through and move stale air out of the building.
On the main floor, a spectacular glass-walled chapel is the literal and metaphorical centre of the community. Next to the chapel, a series of lounges welcomes nuns and visitors to linger and chat, or perhaps read a mystery novel while enjoying a view of the valley or the two fountains that burble outside the windows. “The idea was about building community,” explains architect Brigitte Shim of Shim-Sutcliffe, “both together and as smaller groups within the whole.” Built-in benches beneath the windows provide ample space to sit down – a critical point, as Shim points out, for an aging population.
Three levels above contain private rooms where the sisters live. Each unit is about 270 square feet, and contains a high-ceilinged bedroom area with a window that opens, bringing in fresh air; an accessible bathroom; and a compact sitting area with a small window, framed in white oak, which can open onto the corridor to allow for conversation. This is a carefully calibrated model for the life of a nun, which involves both solitary contemplation and collective prayer as well as the occasional movie night.
The top two floors are devoted to sisters who need significant care. The community of sisters has shrunk slightly, and six of the original dwelling rooms have been repurposed. But Sister Marcella reports that the vision of the building remains largely intact. Her favourite part of the structure, however, is the large windows that allow her to see what’s outside: the lush garden behind the building and the forested valley beyond. “You can see the birds and the flowers, and the fall colours are amazing,” she says. “But some people prefer to sit out front and see what’s happening on the street.” Even a life of contemplation benefits from staying in touch with the outside world.