In early 2001, I was a young, single, self-employed dad with two kids starting over. At the time, the house I now call home was right at the edge of town, needed a good bit of work and was the scariest purchase of my life. The semi at 22 York St W in Elora was supposed to be a temporary stop for the kids and me as we re-grouped and figured out the next steps for Team Hammond. 22 years later (!) that purchase has turned into a space and community that, in those early days, I couldn’t begin to imagine.
I am humbled how an initial ‘OMG what am I doing’ purchase has evolved into a modern take on community living. The journey getting here is interesting and our most recent iteration has been profiled by the Live Here project at the County of Wellington. You can see the story they did about our family home here. If you are interested in the back story on how a single house purchase has turned into an example of what family living in a stupidly tight housing market can look like, read on.
And now, back to our story…
Team Hammond (me and my two kids Sky and Jay) lived in our semi-detached at 22 York St for several years and, thanks to the support of many, built a humble home full of creativity, fun and love. When 20 York St (the semi we were attached to) went up for sale the beautiful and charming Melanie, whom I had been seeing for a while, decided to buy it and move in next door. This would be a test to see if we really liked each other.
Turns out we did and after getting married in 2008, Team Hamderson (can you guess Mel’s last name?) started living in The East Wing (22 York St) and we moved the newly incorporated Pearl Street offices over to The West Wing (20 York St). What allowed us to do this was a unique feature of both homes: the two semi’s shared a common outside door while having their own fully secure front door. This meant we could travel between the two spaces without having to go outside. #VeryConvenient
Team Hamderson and Pearl Street both evolved, and we made minor changes (mostly cosmetic) to each wing. The four of us lived at 22 York St and I would commute 3 steps daily to work with team Pearl Street. The company used the main floor of 20 York St for desk and creative space and used the large bedroom on the second floor as our board room.
This meant that most evenings and weekends the office was empty. This allowed us to literally open our (office) doors to families and individuals needing a little extra space. During this phase of our evolution, we were blessed to give youth, couples going through a hard time, families, construction workers far from home and friends in need of respite a warm and comfortable space to call home. As people came and went (some stayed for days, others were with us for months) we got better at clearly communicating needs around sharing space, time and room usage. With very few exceptions, we were easily able to grow Pearl Street between 9-5 on weekdays and use 20 York St during off hours as a space to be of service to those around us.
In 2019, with both kids off to school, it was time for a major reno to our home at 22 York St. To prepare for this construction (which we call Phase 1) we made the team at Pearl Street virtual (notice the timing on that!) and Mel and I moved into 20 York St W for 5+ months while we renovated our home at 22.
That reno went well and we enjoyed spending money so much that when we moved back into 22 that late summer, we cleared out the office and renovated 20 almost as extensively. Thus began Phase 2. We reimaged the office basement and put in a bathroom and large board room for meeting with clients (notice the timing of that!). By the end of 2019, we had two fully reimaged homes that were much more energy efficient and reflected our welcoming and modern aesthetic. We were feeling very blessed and had plans to continue to live in 22 and make money/serve the community in 20.
Then a snake shat on a bat and the world fell apart. Instead of building a business and looking for creative ways to use our new space to serve, we scrambled to get our kids back home safely in March 2020. We were SO fortunate to have two homes that allowed 5 of us to live and work remotely in the multiple spaces we had just created.
The newest addition to our family was Sky’s life partner, Juliane. They both arrived in Elora on March 15/20 planning to stay only for a few days before moving to the Big Apple where Juliane had the internship of a lifetime with a German-based TV news crew. That obviously didn’t happen and their much-anticipated launch in NYC turned into getting stuck in Elora with the folks for the first 8 months of the pandemic. While fun for us parents, it may have been slightly less so for the kids.
As 2021 begins and the kids have gone back to school, Mel and I are living on our own again. As the pandemic evolves and everything seems to open/close/open/close Mel’s parents began thinking about their next steps. Their family home in Fergus (where they had nurtured 7 kids) was quickly being surrounded by new development and the large lot became more bother than it was worth.
After making the commitment to sell their home, it was a question of where to go. They asked if they could rent 20 York St from us for a year as a soft landing and give them time to explore their (very) limited housing options in our community. It was a stressful time to move. Some weeks there were literally NO rentals available and homes that were on the market were selling in hours, sometimes sight unseen. In the words of a real estate agent friend, the Elora housing market had broken its connection with reality.
It was through our ‘how best do we make this year work’ conversation with Mel’s parents that the question arose: what would it take to make 20 York St W a long-term housing solution? Mel’s parents were in good health and active. And, they knew that the stairs up to get to the main bedroom and down to get to the laundry would eventually become a barrier. What if we could eliminate the stairs altogether?
Working together on the design, we planned for a main floor extension on 20 York St that would include a garage, a primary bedroom with a walk-in closet and good size bathroom with a walk-in shower. Add a laundry and mud room and we had plans that would allow Mel’s parents to move in and age in place. Plans also included extending the current basement for storage and a small workout room for the elliptical that we had been moving around since Phase 1.
And just like that, we enter Phase 3 of our housing project. Because most of the work was happening outside of the current home, Mel’s parents could live in 20 with little disruption aside from noise. In fact, the almost-last phase of the project was cutting a hole through the living room wall to join with the extension, instantly doubling the amount of space on the main floor. We knew the project was really finished when Mel’s parents were able to ‘move’ into their main floor bedroom.
As the article from the County references, clear, open and constant communication was really key during this phase. While not always perfect, we did our best to keep Mel’s parents, the contractors, our neighbours and ourselves aligned on the changes that were bound to happen. We all had to constantly re-manage our expectations because of supply chain issues and dramatic price shifts. While Phase 3 took more time and money than we anticipated, I don’t think any of us regret the result. Having Mel’s parent’s next door has deepened our relationship with them and lets us see other family members as they drop in to say hi. We have also mastered the art of the multi-home family event. Beverages though this door. Food through over here.
Fast forward to mid-2022 and Sky and Juliane are ready to leave their rental in Munich wanting to put down permanent roots. While they are exploring next steps, Mel and I started looking at the yard on 22. While not quite as wide as the yard at 20, would there be enough room to build something for them? It would have to have lots of light in the basement and a second-story bedroom and bathroom. Feeling confident about the project management skills we had developed through Phases 1, 2 and 3, it was a conversation that we went into with an open mind about timing, money and impact.
Thanks to a creative architect and lots of back of fourth on ideas, we were able to land on a design that met their needs and would work on the yard space we had available. Again, with clear conversations about money, timing and what community living might look like, we entered Phase 4.
It’s worth noting that our plans included 23 more square feet of living space than the current byways would let us build. That meant that we needed to ask permission for a ‘variance’. It was a formal process that included submitting drawings, written notice being sent to our neighbours and attending a committee meeting to explain our plan. Of the 6 applications being heard by the committee on the same day, 5 were for plans nearly identical to ours: parents adding on to their current home to make room for their kids and partners. While our application may have met with some resistance before the pandemic, the nutty Elora housing market made projects like this very appealing to the township. Our minor variance request was approved with no hesitations. With that approval, we OFFICIALLY entered Phase 4.
This project was different from the first three as Sky and Juliane oversaw the building and finances. Mel and I had a final say on the exterior of the home as we wanted to make sure 20, 22 and the soon-to-be-built 22B looked like the unified and intentional projects they were. Inside, they designed a warm, open-concept home full of wood and lots of natural light. They even installed hardwood floors on their own! My son is now the handyman of the family and I could not be happier.
It is early June 2023 and the kids have just moved out of our basement where they had been living for the past 8 months and are now settling into their 1200 square foot home attached to ours. It is a joy to watch them create a space that reflects who they are and bring their dream to life. This dream includes two very lucky cats who will live the life of Riley.
Four years after starting our initial ‘what if we have more closet space’ conversation, we now have three generations living within 40 meters of one another. Each of our construction phases has prepared us for the next and pushed us to think creatively about space and how to maximize the many gifts we have been blessed with. Individually we are three related family units. Together, we are The Blue Door Community, and I can’t wait to see the impact we make on one another and our neighbourhood.