Tiny homes, big community: Okotoks exploring affordable, eco-friendly homes

Vagabond Tiny Homes founder Thomas Grenier in front of his tiny show home.
Vagabond Tiny Homes founder Thomas Grenier in front of his tiny show home. Vagabond Tiny Homes

A southern Alberta town is looking to become a provincial leader in affordable housing, community-building and eco-friendly living with an ambitious new development in the middle of Okotoks.

The four-acre site in Okotoks’ Kinsmen Park would be transformed into the Tiny Home Eco Village: 32 tiny rental homes and a central, communal building with an attached greenhouse.

Dawn Smith, environment and sustainability coordinator for the Town of Okotoks, said the new development was sparked by increasing concern over a loss of community in the town of 29,000.

“Addressing the concept that a lot of our citizens brought up in community engagement recently, they had expressed that they would like to see a different type of community. So, not your front car garage where you’re very disconnected from your neighbour.

“You drive to your garage, you don’t really talk to anybody. They really wanted to see reconnection with neighbours.”

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Smith added citizens wanted to maintain a connection to nature in the southern Alberta town.

“So how do we bring natural landscape and food-based landscape — so urban gardens — back into a village concept? And this hit all those things on the head. And our town council has recently stated that they would like to be an environmental leader in Alberta, and so, if we’re involved in a project we need to start setting precedent with our work.”

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In the summer of 2017, Okotoks annexed 4,900 acres of surrounding land to address an expanding population that saw a nearly 18 per cent increase from 2011 to 2018. But instead of building out, with this project the town is thinking small and looking to encourage density and walkability in the centrally-located park.

Interior of a Vagabond Tiny Home.
Interior of a Vagabond Tiny Home.
Interior of a Vagabond Tiny Home.
Interior of a Vagabond Tiny Home.
Interior of a Vagabond Tiny Home.
Interior of a Vagabond Tiny Home.

Okotoks has teamed up with Calgary-based Vagabond Tiny Homes for the project and hopes to secure funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Affordable Housing Innovation Fund to make the village a reality.

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The innovation fund’s criteria include long-term affordability, innovative design or financing models, resource efficiencies, accessibility features, viability and sustainability without government funding, along with other factors like repeatable design, accessibility to transit and a focus on social inclusion.

READ MORE: Tiny home advocates build, display micro home in Vancouver

Vagabond Tiny Homes owner Thomas Grenier said the tiny homes he is planning for Okotoks will not be ones on wheels that are frequently featured on social media.

“Generally speaking, the homes will be a little bit different. The homes we are projecting for this village will be a little bit larger. They would be fixed in place, not on a trailer with wheels. And they would be set up for more of a permanent setting.

“They would have a full deck surrounding it and trying to take the same concepts that we’ve included in the show home: the innovation around space usage and adaptable design, and try to include it in a smaller fixed house.”

Smith emphasized that these tiny homes would not look or be a smaller version of prefabricated mobile homes.

“We don’t want the site to look like it’s temporary. These are permanent homes. They will be on a concrete slab with decking and skirting around it so they look permanent.”

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The tiny homes would range in size from 375 to 600 square feet. Fifteen per cent of the units would be wheelchair accessible. Recognizing the lands surrounding the town, another 15 per cent of the homes would be earmarked for Indigenous renters.

Grenier and Vagabond will be working closely with the Town of Okotoks to ensure the homes meet code and zoning requirements.

READ MORE: Pilot project tackling First Nation housing crisis one tiny home at a time

“It’s one of the larger challenges that we have at this point. We’re proposing something that really hasn’t been done before, so it requires a much more procedural approach than conventional housing would,” Grenier said.

“What I think this community does is offers the opportunity for us to test small living in a way that doesn’t scare people away with the typical notions of what a tiny home is.

“And I think approaching it with the town and province in a way that tries to make them as efficient and quality-built as possible, to accent the quality of them, will help us create a new building standard for micro homes within this province, hopefully for other communities and other building concepts to come.”

Recognizing the limits of the tiny homes, the town and Vagabond are planning to include a central building for all residents in the village to access for things like entertaining large groups, meetings, workspaces and storage. A greenhouse for year-round gardening to supplement a nearby community garden is planned to be connected to the central building.

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“The concept of the village is, really, communal living,” Smith said.

“It’s going to take a certain type of person who wants to live there, but I think there are a lot of people out there who are interested in this type of concept and will embrace it and make it successful because they are so invested in it.”

READ MORE: Councillor calls for tiny home communities in Hamilton

Recognizing that a tiny home village could be one way to address affordable housing in the town and across the nation, Smith hopes the village could be used as a model for future developments.

“One of CMHC’s mandates is if we do get the grant, to look at how this model performs economically so that it could potentially be reproduced by the development industry where they are actually selling houses. And that’s our intent too. We don’t just want to be a stand-off project.

“We want to look at all of these ideas and the environmental upgrades to say ‘What is the cost and how easy is it to replicate?’”

If funding is approved in the fall of 2018, Grenier said the tiny homes could be moved in to as early as the fall of 2020.

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Vagabond is bringing its tiny showhome to Okotoks for Chilifest on Aug. 25 as part of an information session for the town’s residents, with other public participation sessions later in the fall.