Flexing for the future

Special to the Star

When Angie and Gino Romasco started looking for a new home 10 years ago, they wanted a flexible floor plan that would accommodate their family of four as well as Angie’s parents.

They found what they were looking for at Brampton ’s Springdale development, in one of 20 two-storey FlexHomes being offered by Townwood Homes.

“We were looking at convertible homes so we could live with my in-laws,” says Gino. “We fell in love with our home because we would each have our own places, with our own entrances, and they were able to make a few modifications we wanted.”

There are two entrances to the 3,000-square-foot house, one at the front for the Romascos and their two daughters, and one at the side for Angie’s mother, Asunta Principi, who is now in her 70’s.

The main floor contains a master bedroom, bathroom,  kitchen, dining room, family room and open stairs to the basement. . A staircase leads to two bedrooms over the garage, private retreats for daughters Monique, 26, and Tanya, 23.

The side entrance leads to the second floor, which contains a separate bathroom, kitchen, and dining room for Principe .

“We’re both owners of the house,” Gino says. “We have our own furnaces and bills. The only thing we share is taxes and water. This has been fantastic and I would do it again.”

So would many other buyers, but Townwood no longer offers FlexHomes, says marketing manager Ingrid McCallum.

“We still get requests for these two-family homes that were built 10 years ago,” says Ingrid Mccallum, sales and marketing manager, Townwood Homes. “With so many families today coming back together, as the population ages, this is a wonderful solution.

“I think this a product people would like to have accessible to them but it’s a problem zoning for these. They are really duplexes and cannot be called single-family dwellings. But developers need to know this is a type of house people are seeking.”

Zoning is only one reason FlexHomes haven’t caught on with builders, suggests architect Ken Viljoen, who designed the Townwood homes in Springdale . He says there are logistical problems as well.

“It’s difficult to design a home for two different families,” he explains. “You have to have separate heating and air conditioning which is not easy to do in a subdivision. It also had to be designed so it could be converted back to a single-family dwelling.”

It’s that adaptability that makes FlexHomes so attractive, especially as the population ages.

Pat Chrisjohn, a policy analyst with Peel’s housing and property department, recently conducted a study on the housing needs of older adults. She discovered one of the biggest concerns for people over the age of 55 is navigating their way up and down stairs.

“Right now these people can manage,” she says. “But they want to live on one floor when they get older.”

She says FlexHomes are the answer, because they provide the one-floor living seniors prefer, and fit seamlessly into neighbourhoods.

Which is exactly why the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, or CMHC, has been promoting the idea of flexible housing for the past decade.

CMHC’s FlexHousing program encourages builders to design homes that can be easily adapted to meet the evolving needs of its occupants—perhaps even allowing them to stay in one home their entire lives.

From wiring and plumbing to soundproofing and wider doors, the goal is to plan ahead for future renovations and adaptations.

For example, a bit of extra planning now can make it much easier to install an elevator when stairs become a problem.

“A two-storey FlexHouse has stackable closets built big enough to act as a shaft for an elevator,” explains Collinda Joseph, a senior researcher with CMHC. “The basement is wired for an elevator during construction so the cost is lower because you don’t have to reconstruct the home later.”

Another example is building a main-floor washroom with a shower big enough for a wheelchair, along with extra plumbing and wiring to accommodate a full-sized bathtub or a washer and dryer—anticipating the changing needs of its occupants.

“The bathroom has three potential uses and no extra plumbing or electrical is required down the road,” says Joseph.

Other CMHC suggestions for flexible housing cover everything from parking, entrances and hallways to kitchens, bedrooms and laundry rooms. It even recommends special roof trusses to allow future use of the attic as added living space.

Although there are no set rules or guidelines for FlexHousing, CMHC continues to promote the idea to builders and buyers.

“We encourage the voluntary adoption of the various features by builders and stir the market by educating consumers,” says Mark Salerno, district manager for the GTA.  “We do not have rigorous standards or certification of FlexHousing, though.”

But Joseph, who has been in a wheelchair for 20 years, would like to see FlexHousing become the law across Canada . She knows this would be difficult because building codes are provincially set.

“It would be great to have Flex adopted as R-2000 homes are adopted,” she says. “In Great Britain , every new home has to have four features of visitability: on-grade entry, wider doorways on the main level, a bathroom on the main level, and circulation space on the main level.”

Because  FlexHousing hasn’t attracted as much attention from builders as CMHC expected, it conducted a study was in 2001 to examine the cost difference between Flex and traditional homes.

Joseph explains that a baseline home in Saskatchewan was used for the study. It was 1,800 square feet and cost $146,000. When the Flex features were included, the cost difference was just $3,000—about 2 per cent.

“If Flex is designed in the construction, it’s not much more,” says Joseph. “But if you have to renovate later, the costs are much more.”

Greg Hussey, of Karwood Homes, which has built 35 FlexHouses in a Newfoundland subdivision, thinks builders resist the idea of Flex because it can be difficult and frustrating to change their process.

“Building is a for-profit business,” he explains.

“The margin is ridiculously low so when you get involved with Flex you don’t have the time to deal with issues. I had one home turned down by the building inspector because the thermostat was too low—48 inches instead of 52. If a builder is just starting to do Flex, and has trouble with an inspector, he’ll just run away.

“Builders need to be educated, stand their ground and change their way of thinking. As the demand increases, more builders will take Flex on.”

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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