Excitement is building around tiny homes as more and more people are finding the cost of living in Calgary too high.

Tiny houses — around 400 sq. ft. and smaller — are customizable, practical, often moveable and not to mention adorable. Not only are they cute, they are also versatile and can be made from all kinds of new and used materials.

Thomas Grenier, 26, founder of Vagabond Tiny Homes, was secretly working on his tiny house business plan while he was finishing his master’s degree in biomedical technology and business development at the University of Calgary; a plan he didn’t share with his family or his closest friends until recently.

His original goal was to find a job in his field and build himself a tiny house, but the idea quickly expanded when he realized the tiny house industry in Calgary had yet to take off.

Telling not-so-tiny secrets

The first person he told about his idea for a tiny house village was his grandfather, Arthur Grenier, whom he regards as his hero. Grenier said he had the opportunity to show him the first draft of his business plan before he passed away in July at the age of 94.

Grenier’s grandfather had been through it all and worked hard as a safety inspector at a construction company most of his life. His hard work motivated and inspired Grenier to pursue his idea and he is missed dearly by Thomas.

Thomas Grenier regards his grandfather, Arthur Grenier as his hero and inspiration in life. Thomas remembers his grandfather as a hard working, do-it-yourself man and strives to make him proud even after his passing. Arthur Grenier (right) was the first person to see Thomas’ (left) tiny house proposal. Photo Courtesy of Thomas Grenier.

Arthur Grenier had an eye for unique collectables, including anything from old tractors, and kettle stoves, to barn wood, which he stored in garages on his property.

“Now that he’s gone I think my family has been very much in the place where it’s like, maybe we should just ditch all this, just do a fire sale sort of thing, and I am kind of heart broken with that notion because I believe that there is something of a legacy that could be made out of that,” says Grenier.

Inspired by his grandfather’s collection of unique objects, the artistry and craftsmanship that Grenier plans to incorporate into each tiny home will play a big part in the uniqueness of each tiny house.

“We have amazing artists in this city and amazing musicians, and amazing skilled people, and there’s really no forum for these people . . . as far as I can tell, and I would love to be able to give a radical new forum to the community around me,” Grenier says.

After visiting a few tiny house villages in the United States, he came up with a few ideas for what he would like to see in his project. He hopes to install a year-round communal greenhouse as well as a larger event building for when residents want to invite more people over than their tiny houses can hold.

Grenier would like to install solar panels on the roofs of the tiny houses as well as work with engineers to make the houses as sustainable and innovative as they can be.

Grenier explains that he is not pursuing the project to make money. In order to keep rental costs down, he would like to host local concerts in the village to subsidize some of the costs as well as bring the community together.

Funding

At the moment, his ideas for the village are dependent on potential funding to make his tiny house dreams come true. After applying for grants to kick-start his vision for his tiny house company he received a call back from Dany Skelling, an innovation fund consultant at the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, to discuss Grenier’s vision for tiny house communities in and around Calgary.

“If the Canadian Innovation Fund were to come to fruition then the land acquisition would actually be purchased predominantly by the government and it would be leased to us basically for free for the 10 years in which sustainable housing would be the thing,” Grenier says.

Keeping rental costs low is important to Grenier, who says that if he meets their requirements he will hopefully be able to keep his name on the land without having to pay obscene mortgage payments, allowing for no more than $450 for a rental spot.

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According to Skelling, the $200 million innovation fund was part of the federal budget unveiled in March and is for anyone with an idea for creating innovative and affordable rental housing in Canada. The aim of the fund is not only to provide the funds to build innovative rental housing projects but to encourage unique ideas that will revolutionize the rental-housing sector.

Skelling, who works with entrepreneurs and groups, providing support while they prepare business proposals in order to gain access to the fund, said he and Grenier have been discussing the possibility that the CMHC’s Innovation Fund could help him.

Grenier, who was sitting on his front steps when Skelling called, said he was skeptical at first. “It was something I was going to do in five years when I had enough capital to purchase land and actually go for it, and he’s just like,‘Hypothetically, (if) you didn’t actually have to pay for the land, and you got funding for the houses…’ And I was like, well that would be amazing.”

After meeting with Skelling to go over his business proposal, Grenier said he gained a better understanding of the aspects of his proposal that he wants to elaborate on and expand in hopes that he gets approved for funding.

“If that were to happen we would have land acquisition happening fairly quickly or at least in the process of looking for a good place … We’d be focusing on areas right outside the city centre along the C-train lines or the express buses,” Grenier says.

In order to receive funding, Grenier will have to appear before a board and defend his business proposal. If the board agrees to fund the tiny house community project, his goal is to have 12 tiny homes built in the next 12 to 18 months.

Changing course

Grenier was introduced to Christianity as a teenager; a belief system he held on to into his 20’s until he realized it wasn’t for him anymore. After he left the church, which included friends, a fiancé, and an ideology, Grenier found himself in a sort of “mental dip” and wanted to do something for himself. The original plan was to go to medical school, but tiny houses started to piece themselves together in front of his eyes.

“Coming out of that experience, it was pretty rough and it was pretty weird to re-assess my friend group, or lack thereof, and it was kind of weird to lose my job at the church and not be going to a Christian university anymore. Just to fully walk out of that, that was okay though. I think it was when my fiancé cut it, that one was the point of no return.”

After the solitude that came from this monumental life-change, Grenier tree-planted for a few summers, began writing a book, and even began nude modelling for artists’ drawing practice. Through all of this, he discovered his love for hard work and getting his hands dirty.

“I probably wouldn’t have done something this radical if not for coming out of the church and, I think, deciding to do something like this was largely a novel notion in the back of my head for six months,” says Grenier.

Interconnectivity comes at a cost

“The beauty of something like a tiny house community is that if a tiny house community is erected in advance … each tiny house would have its own utility meter and it could be set up on one giant concrete foundation so that we have shared foundation and kind of like, side step any bylaw iciness,” Grenier says.

Tiny houses fall under the category of secondary suites in Calgary and are allowed as long as they are not on wheels and they meet the city’s building codes.

Exterior of a gorgeous tiny house built by the “Timbercraft Tiny Home” company, an example of a Tiny Home. Photo courtesy of Doug Schroeder of Timbercraft Tiny Homes at http://timbercrafttinyhomes.com.

Counsellor Ward Sutherland, who has dealt with legislation surrounding tiny houses in the past, explains that connecting the tiny houses is the real issue.

“The biggest expense… about these tiny houses is actually connecting it,” says Coun. Ward Sutherland. “They have to be connected to electricity, water, and wastewater, and in order to do that, unfortunately depending on the location, even the backyard can be up to $30,000.”

Sutherland, who says the federal and provincial governments have not contributed to the housing market in over 15 years says there are roughly 20, 000 houses the city manages and operates on behalf of the province, many of whom are in such bad shape that they need to be torn down.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of individuals that are working full-time and they can’t even afford rent, let alone any housing,” he says.

Tiny homes have the potential to provide an alternative to expensive housing in Calgary and Sutherland says the city is looking at multiple alternatives such as sea-can homes from containers that were shipped from China now sitting empty in the province, as well as secondary suite regulations.

Sutherland says the city knows that this is the right direction to go in and they have already adjusted some land use bylaws surrounding cottage homes and secondary suites to accommodate that.

First hand accounts

Tiny house owners Colin Robinson and Morgan Gathercole are in the process of building a tiny house complete with a homemade stained glass window and customized storage and layout. The couple put an ad on the popular website, Kijiji, looking for a rental space on an inner city Calgary property to park their tiny house and live.

“The idea that, to live in a 140 square foot space that was designed specifically for us, would be way more effective than living in an 800 or 1000 sq. ft. space that was designed for somebody else,” Robinson explains.

For them, the Kijiji ad was a sort of test, to see how Calgarians reacted to the idea of a tiny house renter on their property and to their surprise, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Grenier says tiny homes don’t have to be generic, that they can be artistic, beautiful, and technologically advanced in every way.

“We have amazing artists in this city and amazing musicians, and amazing skilled people, and there’s really no forum for these people . . . as far as I can tell, and I would love to be able to give a radical new forum to the community around me,”~Grenier.

“If I have the right ambassadors, the people that buy the first homes, I see them more as ambassadors of this brand or this kind of notion and hopefully as ambassadors, these people just simply have to live in them. And live in them in a way that kind of promotes this kind of feasible long-term staying in a tiny house.”

Looking towards the future, Grenier says that the green technologies he is planning to incorporate into his tiny homes is one aspect that he hopes will excite potential buyers.

“I think who I would like to sell the tiny houses to first are the people who would actually be really stoked that there are solar panels on the roofs, that there are smart home technologies and that there is adaptable features and that they can actually envision a tiny house for, if not for their whole life, a portion of it – a large portion of it.”

lpeters@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Katherine Huitema and can be contacted at khuitema@cjournal.ca