Adrian Crook has discovered life is better once you abandon the accepted wisdom that you need a house and backyard to raise happy kids.
A divorced dad, Mr. Crook lives in a 1,023-sq.-ft. high-rise rental condo with his five children and partner Sarah Zaharia. He has three boys and two girls, ages 8, 7, 6, 5 and 3 – or, as some people call them, “the countdown.”
Mr. Crook and his family might be the extreme, but they are the new model of modern Canadian life – urban, minimal and connected to their community. He doesn’t see their lifestyle as cramped, or as a temporary phase, or second best to living in a detached house. Although living small is not for everyone, Mr. Crook says he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s so pleased with the arrangement that if someone gave him $1-million, he says he still wouldn’t buy a house. Instead, he would sock the money away.
“I’m not going to live in a six- or seven-bedroom house in my lifetime. And I don’t even want it,” he says, seated inside his remarkably clutter-free apartment. A nanny keeps the two youngest kids somewhat occupied.
“Those articles you read about how much you need to live in Vancouver? They are based on buying a house or a condo, which I’m not interested in doing. If we bought a condo, the burn rate would be almost double what it would be right now, unless you put $500,000 down, or something silly.”
Mr. Crook, a video-game designer, pays $2,150 for his rental condo in a Yaletown building built in 1994. He’s heard there are about 60 other kids in the building, which makes sense. Older layouts are generally more spacious than the newer ones.
His is the alternate perspective in a world that obsesses with big. For a good many people, the bigger, the better. Consumers want big houses with double sinks, walk-in closets, massive kitchens and a bedroom with ensuite for every kid. They want SUVs they can drive to Costco or Walmart and load up with stuff. And they spend endless hours driving their kids around, going from hockey practice to art class to dance class to baseball and back again.
Mr. Crook, 40, has never wanted any of that, and he says his children will never have those things, either.
“It feels like the whole kid thing is flipped around, where the kids used to contribute to the household. Now it’s flipped around. We are indentured servants to the kids, giving them these coddled lives. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Mr. Crook and his ex get their kids on alternating weeks. When they’re not at his apartment, they’re at their mom’s townhouse in North Vancouver. Because downtown schools are at capacity, he drives his kids to school in North Vancouver.
At his place, his kids will always sleep in bunk beds and share a single bathroom and have chores in order for their household to run efficiently. The trade-off is they get a father who’s around a lot, because Mr. Crook has turned down career advancement to work at home, as a consultant.
“It’s not a kid’s right to have their own bedroom. They’ll have a lot of other things that a lot of kids don’t have, such as an urban lifestyle. And they have me. I’m around far more than the typical parent who works 9 to 5. Kids don’t remember that they had their own bedroom. They remember that they were loved.
“I think it’s far more useful to be cognizant that you are a family and you have to care about each others’ needs as opposed to burying someone on another floor and forgetting about them.”
Mr. Crook might be onto something. The Center on Everyday Lives of Families at the University of California released a study that looked at the habits of 32 middle-class, double-income families. Over a four-year period, ethnographers studied how the families related to their living spaces during waking hours. They found that regardless of the size of house, the families spent nearly all their time in a space of around 400 sq. ft., almost exclusively in the kitchen, family room and dining room. The rest of the house was almost never used. The average backyard use by the children was only 40 minutes a week. Parents used the outdoor space 15 minutes a week. They discovered that while we crave abundant space, we rarely use it.
“I like small, confined spaces for how efficient they are, and I also don’t like having spaces that don’t get used for days or weeks at a time,” says Mr. Crook. “That’s insane to me, a total waste.”
Still, raising kids in a small space will call your judgment into question.
“When I told my mom that I was going to continue living downtown with kids, you would have thought that I had told her I was actively strangling one of my kids,” he says.
“A lot of people think living downtown means you just want to party all the time, that you haven’t grown up. And you’re forcing your kids to suffer.”
In response, he started a blog called 5 Kids 1 Condo, so he can show other families the benefits of raising kids downtown. For example, it’s not unusual for the family to walk 10 kilometres in a day, or make use of a pool in a nearby building. His kids once helped give out socks to homeless people.
“I want to expose them to things that are atypical.”
In Canadian terms, Mr. Crook’s own childhood could be classified as pretty typical. He grew up in a big house in Port Moody, B.C., near a creek and a park, living the suburban dream. Early in his marriage, he and his wife lived in a big house in North Vancouver, and he remembers walking along deserted streets. He also remembers rooms in the house that never got used.
“I was totally miserable,” he says.
Mr. Crook gets his kids one week on, one week off. The kids divide their time between Mr. Crook’s Yaletown apartment and their mother’s North Vancouver townhouse. They go to school in North Vancouver, which is the only time Mr. Crook uses a car.
“I love the idea of having a smaller space, because then you aren’t tempted to buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need. We go to Costco, but there’s no room for superfluous stuff. To make room, we are often taking stuff out to be donated.”
The boys share a custom-built triple bunk bed, with the eldest in the top bunk. The girls share a bunk bed as well, in a small room with a balcony. Safety issues are a concern when you live in a condo tower with small children. There is a sliding patio door that has a lock and key. All windows have safety latches, and the kids’ bedroom windows are alarmed.
In terms of efficient living, they are a model family.
The unit is two bedrooms plus a den, with small balcony. The girls’ bunk bed is in the small, converted den, and the boys’ custom-made triple bunk bed is in the second bedroom. The hallway closet has been turned into a cloakroom. The walk-in storage closet has been converted into an art-making room, with easel and paints. In the living room, all floor space is kept clear to maintain maximum square footage. The TV is wall mounted, and all books are kept on shelves.
Mr. Crook has instituted an awards program to maintain order. He gives out tickets for chores that are completed. By the week’s end, the child with the most tickets — usually around 50 to 70 — gets three Kinder Surprise eggs. Everybody else gets one candy egg.
“Some jobs are priced higher because they are not as desirable,” he explains. “Like taking the garbage and recycling to the ground floor used to be desirable, because it was a job that came with a lot of responsibility. But now it’s not as desirable. It’s more like gross,” he says, laughing. “So they get 10 tickets for that.”
His kids take their chores seriously, too. He’s had to check on them if they take too long in the recycling room, because they get so involved in the sorting.
“I remember the 6-year-old did it once on his own and forgot the keys and got trapped on the ground floor. Luckily, I was heading out and I came down and I took him back up.”
He’s confident that his building is safe. He knows his neighbours.
“The most dangerous thing you could do is load your kids into a car. The odds that you have a child abductor in your building, or even in the neighbourhood, are pretty ridiculously low. Not something I’m worried about.”
But then there’s the challenge of the teen years, when his kids might crave more space.
“I think they are on the right track, but who knows? When they are teenagers I’m sure they’ll have a bunch of crazy issues.
“We may have to make some changes,” he concedes. “I would love to stay here. But we may need a change.”
He would consider a bigger condo.