Vancouver design expert Alison Mazurek shares space-smart hacks for raising two kids in a small condo
Alison Mazurek never planned to raise two kids in a 600-square-foot apartment. But life happened, along with a real-estate squeeze faced by countless Vancouverites just like her and her husband.
And then she took on something else that she never set out to do: becoming a blogger giving advice on how to make space for a family in a one-bedroom apartment.
One of her main goals is to help Vancouver shift to a mindset that was long ago adopted in places like Copenhagen and New York City: one where people can picture themselves having children outside of the single-detached-house model.
“I feel that a lot of conventional wisdom on what you need to have a kid is that kids need a yard, or you need a basement, but many of us can’t afford that now,” the writer behind the blog called 600sqftandababy tells the Straight, before hitting the Vancouver Fall Home Show to re-create three of her rooms for display. “I think we’re really privileged to have a one-bedroom in Vancouver. And so it becomes, ‘Okay, if we can’t have a yard, we can use the beautiful parks around us in the neighbourhood or put our kids in classes at the community centre.’ We have to get creative about how we’re living in this city.”
When Mazurek and her partner bought their one-bedroom Mount Pleasant apartment nine years ago, there was plenty of room. And then, about three years later, she had to face some hard choices when she learned she was going to have her first child.
“When I got pregnant everybody said, ‘Where are you going to move?’ ” she says, adding the assumption was that she was going to have to relocate to a bigger home out in a ’burb like Langley or further. “And I got really adamant and said, ‘No, we’re going to stay in the city.’ ”
Mazurek and her husband had become attached to the nearby restaurants and cafés of their ’hood, and they loved the big windows and high ceilings in their place. And she recognized how much smaller their eco-footprint would be if they could stay put. “We love the walkability of it,” she says. “We can do a lot of chores on foot. Community centres, coffee shops, art shops: they’re all within walking distance.”
As a freelance design project manager, Mazurek already had a skill for planning spaces. So she started researching how families manage to live in small spaces in high-density cities in Europe. But all she could find was “pretty pictures” and not a lot of details about how to maximize storage and space with a baby.
“So I felt like if we did it and were happy, I would share about it,” she says.
Her choices have played out against a metropolitan area that’s struggling with growth. The City of Vancouver has found a “missing middle” of housing choices for families between studio and one-bedroom condos and single-detached homes. At the same time, studies are showing urban households, where most people live in apartments and use mass transit or travel by bike and foot, are better for the Earth. As David Owen argues in his book Green Metropolis, “living smaller, living closer, and driving less” are the keys to sustainability.
The good news is that, even now with a three-year-old and a six-year-old, Mazurek has been managing to make a one-bedroom work well.
Having an infant in the space was surprisingly easy, she reports, with everything close at hand. When the second child came along, she admits her clan of four had to get even more creative. “The main thing is just to have less things with children; you have to edit all the time,” she advises. “We have to just not shop a lot and not bring a lot into our home.…We have to be ruthless about what can we live without and intentional about what we live with.”
That means being disciplined about swapping out clothing by season, packing away sweaters or summer wear in vacuum-sealed bags and storing them away on higher shelves when they’re not in use.
Here are a few other small-living hacks Mazurek offers, most of them on view in the rooms she’ll re-create for the new Vancouver Fall Home Show feature called SMÄ(ll), presented by IKEA, at the Vancouver Convention Centre West from Thursday to Sunday (October 24 to 27).
Mazurek calls her high-end wall bed “absolutely critical to us staying in a one-bedroom”. She and her husband use the Penelope style from Resource Furniture.
“We’ve used it every day for six years. And we’re really hard on things; we let the kids jump on it, we have,” she says. The style has two straps that hold in your sheets and comforter when you make the bed each morning before flipping it into place. And safety stops are a must when you have kids.
Mazurek has now put the same brand’s Kali bunk duo in her children’s small bedroom because of its narrow, Euro-twin size. Before that, her first child slept in an IKEA crib (the Sniglar) that converted into a toddler bed.
The Shoe Cabinet
Shoes become a challenge in a 600-square-foot space where entry space is lacking. Mazurek likes IKEA’s Stall shoe cabinet, with its four doored compartments for each family member. “It’s this narrow white cabinet that holds a decent amount of shoes,” she says. “The kids can access it and everybody has a little cupboard for their shoes for that season.”
A Dining Table Storage Bench
Used as seating under her expandable dining table, Mazurek’s bench now houses kids’ puzzles and games in one drawer, and a cordless vacuum in the other. At the SMÄ(ll) display, check out the IKEA Nordli drawered bench as a clean, white option. She’s laid IKEA Pinnarp ash countertop on top to strengthen it for seating and to give it a warm, finished look.
For now, tricks like these have helped her family of four hold out in their one-bedroom. She admits there can be challenges to overcome.
“For me the hardest thing is the lack of alone time in our space,” she says. Sometimes that means asking for alone time and grabbing the headphones. “Or sometimes I have to meet a friend for a drink or go to a coffee shop.
“And play dates are a hard thing,” she adds. “If my kids are having kids over, there’s nowhere to hide; I’m in the play date.”
She always keeps one eye out for a two-bedroom or something bigger for the time when her kids start to ask for more space or privacy. But chances are she’ll still keep her blog going.
“The thing that keeps me going and sharing is I get a sense of community and support from it,” she says. “Anytime I’m writing about the challenges, there’s an outpouring from people going through the same thing. The more people are talking about different ways of living and raising kids, it makes people feel less alone.”