Small-space solutions?

Learning to live with the Kitsilano bungalow blues.

We walked cautiously through the neighbourhood, surveying the wreckage. In narrow plots of land where gracious family homes once stood, the dust rose like smoke from heaping piles of mangled stairways and banisters, gnarled wiring and pipes, and shattered glass. We heard the rapid-fire rat-a-tat-tat of a semi-automatic weapon: a DeWalt compressor with an air-gun firing sixty framing nails a minute. A little extreme perhaps, but this is Kitsilano, and everyone is scrambling to finish their renos.

No, those aren’t tanks lining the avenues; they’re five-tonne dumpsters full of construction waste, as common a sight as the blue bins on recycling day. But unlike your plastic soda bottles, you neighbour’s pulverized house isn’t going to be recycled into polar fleece anytime soon.

People who pain- stakingly wash and flatten their soup cans on blue box day somehow overlook the trucks pulling away from their own curbs hauling several tonnes of plaster to the dump. It’s hard to think clearly when your mind is cluttered with images from Style at Home and Extreme Makeover.

There have been times when I’ve been tempted to pound my own house to rubble, and it isn’t just my green conscience that has held me back; it takes a small fortune to make even the most minor changes.

There came a day when I had to give up the home improvement and decor magazines. We were in post-newborn “recovery”: fragile, tired, just barely getting through the day without crying. Our house is very small; the living room is about the size of the walk-in closets in House and Home, and with two children it got even smaller. When our baby came, the futon “couch” was firmly fixed in the horizontal position, bed sheets and all, usually with one of us tucked under the covers. You couldn’t open the front door a crack without seeing it there, front and centre.

Then there was The Wall. This brilliant bit of guerrilla baby-proofing consisted of a waist-high piece of plywood that sectioned off the corner of the room, behind which we threw everything that our baby could use to maim or kill herself.

Stumbling through the house like zombies from Dawn of the Living Dead, we barely noticed the horrors, until someone came over, and then we felt like pathetic slobs. The magazines promised “small-space solutions,” but rarely were the houses truly small, and the solutions were too extreme, (shear off the top of the house and add three bedrooms and a bathroom), or involved turning the place into a wicker basket theme park.

Finally, it got to me. One magazine featured a mum in her gleaming new kitchen. She reclined on a charming window seat that stored, one presumes, her child’s collection of foam-rubber puzzles, fire hats and 3-D art projects. The child cavorted blithely, meanwhile, in his cathedral-ceilinged nursery with the hand-painted cowboy mural.

There was a whole room just for eating in, and dinner parties! They called it the dining room. Very grand. A living room sans bed – used for sitting and admiring vases of twigs grouped tastefully on the mantelpiece. Where were the skates and the bike trailer? Where was the box of Christmas ornaments and life jackets? Were there rooms for that too?

When I pulled myself together, I wondered why we read this stuff. Who are these people who start over every five years with brand new kitchens, their appliances travelling from Sweden and Germany?

Most of the “before” pictures put my house to shame. Then I thought about how most of the world’s people actually live, and I felt grateful for the bed, The Wall, the whole sorry mess. Since 1926 this little house has given shelter. Who cares if the bathroom is ugly? It would look a lot uglier in a landfill.

Jane Webster is a Vancouver writer and mother of two.