The kids are all right — really, they are. Adrian Crook is a father and video game design consultant living in a 1,050 square foot condo in Vancouver’s trendy Yaletown neighbourhood, raising five children between the ages of three and nine. He’s chosen to forgo suburban homeownership for a two bedroom plus den rental, that emphasizes functional design and walkability.
“The condo lifestyle kind of goes with the downtown lifestyle. You’re not choosing it explicitly for the type of space it is, it’s more about where it’s located,” said Crook, who has previously lived in a townhouse and a single-family detached home.
Two years ago, following a divorce, Crook and his brood moved into a suite on the 29th floor of a building built in 1994. He started the blog, 5kids1condo, to document his family’s experience and share his thoughts on minimalism, sustainability and the benefits of living in an urban environment. By challenging conventional notions of how North American children “should” be raised, Crook has generated significant online buzz. We checked in with the Dad-blogger to find out how his large family makes it work in small space.
Adrian Crook: I grew up in a suburban, single-family home about 25 kilometers outside of Vancouver. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I moved into a condo downtown and loved it for all of its walkability. When my ex and I had our first kid, we continued to live in a condo downtown, but then we moved to a house in North Vancouver, because that’s what you’re supposed to do when there’s another kid on the way. I hated that, and I couldn’t really figure out why at the time. In theory you could still walk places but no one was ever on the streets, cars were flying by and there wasn’t enough density to make it interesting.
Now, I’m on the 29th floor and everything’s on one level. One thousand square feet is more than enough if you don’t own a bunch of crap, and I don’t. It’s pretty minimally decorated, which is the way I like it.
BBH: Why have you chosen to rent rather than own your condo?
AC: If you own your place, there’s a real tendency to upgrade it constantly. You’re thinking about resale value, modernizing the kitchen — and that adds up. Living in a downtown condo means I don’t have to own a lot of stuff. My life is not given over to maintaining things, like a car or a lawn. Renting saves me money and saves me time. Recently, our fridge broke and [the property manager] just…put in a new one! As a family with five kids, our appliances get a lot of wear and tear, but we don’t have to worry about replacing them ourselves.
In Vancouver, the resale value of condos has kind of decoupled from the single-family home market, which has gone crazy. So the resale value of condos is back to around 2006 or 2007 levels, so it’s not as if by renting, I’m missing out on some incredible skyrocketing market in condo values — our condo is probably worth seven to eight hundred thousand and I’m renting it for $2,200 a month, which is hard to beat.
AC: I get this question a lot. Many times the response [from other people] is, “Well just wait until they get older!” and it’s like, this isn’t the first time a family this size has lived in this type of configuration. I think it has more to do with what you expect out of your space and your family. I expect that we all learn how to live together and if my children get to an age where they don’t want to always have to be in the same space, well then by all means go to the park or a coffee shop! They’re a bit young for that now but we don’t currently have any issues with living in the same space.
Maybe one of the reasons why kids live at home until they’re in their 30s is because it’s too comfortable. If my kids want more privacy, they’re going to have to move out [laughs]. Kids only know what you put in front of them, so if you’re being raised in [this type of] environment, you’ll think it’s normal — and it is normal for huge portions of the world.
BBH: What’s your case against the suburbs?
AC: I have an objection to single-family home ownership from a sustainability perspective. Virtually everyone I know who lives in the suburbs drives everywhere — you end up driving between these little islands of activities. Once you get in that mode, you don’t question it.
If you change up your routine and begin to walk everywhere, you sort of lose your appetite for driving. Now when I’m behind the wheel, I think it’s madness! I don’t know how people stand being stalled in traffic for long stretches of time. I don’t know if people really calculate their decision to live in the suburbs — the time spent commuting, the cost of operating a vehicle, parking, etc. You’re not really saving money by moving farther away from the city. It’s a weird calculation that people do to justify it.
BBH: When did you adopt a minimalist lifestyle? What spurred the change?
AC: When I was in my 20s, I definitely lived a minimalist lifestyle, and then it became less-so when I got married. It’s not entirely up to you when only one of you is a minimalist! After my divorce, I basically started with nothing again, which was how I wanted it. I furnished my house with only what I knew I needed. Every bit of floor space counts in a condo.
AC: I get messages on the blog that say, “It looks like my eight-year-old has as many toys as all your kids!” And I totally believe that’s true, there are certain types of toys we just don’t buy. Specifically, single-purpose or large plastic toys that can’t be reconfigured in an imaginative way or stored easily. We have IKEA shelves with 5×5 cubbies and everything has to fit inside. We’ve got LEGO and costumes and puzzles, but it’s all stuff that can be stored in an attractive and minimalist way.
Over time you just need to adjust your kids and your own expectations of what they actually need. Take away their screens and look at what they play with — they’ll reinvent anything once they get over that initial boredom hump.
BBH: What advice would you give to someone who wants to begin purging the non-necessities?
AC: I’ve moved around a lot. I’ve lived in Texas, Los Angeles, Toronto, Playa del Carmen [Mexico] — and every time you move, you lose some stuff. If that’s how your life works, that’s one way to pare down. We’ll frequently dump all the boxes on our IKEA shelf onto the floor and ask the kids to sort things into “donate” or “trash” piles. But I think the biggest thing is to keep an eye on what you’re using. What’s interesting about not having anything in storage is that everything is right in front of you. I suggest moving the things you deem important out to where you can see them. Then, if you’re still not using an item, sell it, because you clearly don’t need it.
AC: Obviously, walkability is huge for us. When we first moved downtown, the kids complained about how much we walked, but now they love it. It’s something you have to build up. But one thing I’m not a fan of in the suburbs is how homogenous they tend to be in terms of demographics and socioeconomic status. You’re not getting a very well-rounded picture of life.
We live in Yaletown, which is kind of a yuppie neighbourhood, but it’s a few blocks away from the downtown eastside, which is one of Canada’s poorest areas. We walk through there quite often, and by doing so the kids are exposed to the highs and lows of life. It’s a humanizing experience.
My Dad was a homicide detective for the Vancouver police department, so I would always meet him downtown when we would hang out after his shift. We would walk through the eastside and he would point out the hookers and the drug dealers, and he’d know all of them by name. He had a way of making me feel like these are just people who are going about their lives — I want to do the same thing for my kids so they have a better picture of the world in general.
BBH: Do you feel like you’re seeing more families raising kids in downtown Vancouver?
AC: There’s not been as much of a shift as I’d like to see. The median age of a child living downtown is three years old. Kindergarten waitlists are long, grade one has a bit of a waitlist, but then grade two has pretty much no waitlist and it continues to decline from there. The real population of kids downtown hasn’t changed in probably 10 or 15 years, and it’s actually declined in relation to the overall spread of Vancouver’s growing population.
AC: I’m a game designer by day, so I put a lot of faith in systems that motivate people to do things. I deploy some of those same systems when it comes to my kids, like incentivizing them to help out around the house. When you have 1,000 square feet of floor space, how quickly five kids can clean up is ridiculous! You can go from a completely messy condo to completely clean in about 15 minutes. That’s what I love about small spaces, you waste so much less of your time.