Adrian Crook and his family have embraced urban minimalism to the fullest. Adrian, his partner Sarah and their five children all live in a 1000 square foot condo in downtown Vancouver’s Yaletown district. Together, they live meaningfully and clutter-free. Adrian is also the author of a blog called 5 Kids 1 Condo. I strongly encourage you check it out, especially if you are interested in living sustainably and finding balance in life.
I’m so glad to have had the chance to connect with Adrian and learn more about his story. Here is the interview conducted with him:
Before we start Adrian, tell us a little about where you live. What sorts of businesses and shops can a person find in the Yaletown district of Vancouver? Is downtown Vancouver similar to the downtown cores of most North American cities?
Yaletown is a former textile/warehouse district in Vancouver that is now a residential neighbourhood with numerous shops and restaurants to choose from. There are several good sized parks all within a few blocks and part of Vancouver’s seawall runs past Yaletown, which means it’s easy to hop on and bike, run or walk as many as 20 kilometers around the city.
I’ve lived in several cities in my life – Toronto, Los Angeles and Houston among them – and Vancouver’s downtown is anything but typical. It’s a model of how downtown residential should be done. Places like Houston and L.A. are only just now seeing some revitalization in their downtown cores, in terms of residential use, whereas Vancouver has been a leader in that area for years, if not decades.
Now that we have a better understanding of where you live, let’s start with my first question. What originally drew you into minimalism? Is there something in particular that attracted you to this lifestyle?
I treat life as a series of experiments. We get a limited amount of time to try as many experiments as we can.
Several times in my life, the experiments I ran necessitated selling all my stuff. Whether it was to pay off debt after the collapse of my startup in 2001, or to sell all my stuff before moving to Mexico for a few years, each time I did so I felt free.
So when the kids and I moved back from Mexico in 2013 with not a single physical possession, I took it as an opportunity to live a more intentional life, in terms of my relationship with “stuff.” By sticking only to the basics, I keep my life and my head free of clutter – allowing me to focus on the people and relationships that are most important in my life.
5 kids and 2 adults in 1000 square feet! How do you do it? Please take us through your condo’s setup. What are some of the adjustments that you have done to make this space as efficient and functional as possible?
We use a lot of vertical space, which is often underutilized when square footage is abundant. We prefer to keep the floors accessible and the windows unblocked, so our small space seems much larger than it is. Too often people put house-sized furniture in a condo or make decisions about furniture without thinking – like the TV has to go on a TV cabinet, or the living room always needs a coffee table. You don’t need those things: mount the TV on the wall, move a bench from the dining room table in front of the couch for the odd times you need a flat surface there. We try to repurpose rooms and furniture as much as possible.
One of the more major tweaks are the bunks in the boys’ and girls’ rooms. The boys’ room has a custom made triple bunk that is pretty cool – and totally integral to preserving space in their room.
We also converted our in-suite storage room to a kids art room, giving the kids a room they can make a mess in. There’s a kid-sized table and bench, wall-mounted paper racks and containers that contain paint brushes, pens, markers and crayons, as well as a wall-mounted easel with paper roll across from the table. The kids art hangs on all the walls of the art room. It’s a pretty great space for them to decamp to whenever a creative urge strikes.
We’ve made a few other tweaks as well, such as turning our hallway closet into a cloakroom with hooks low down for kids’ backpacks and jackets and a rod high up for adult jackets.
What are some of the things you do to teach your kids that less isn’t always more? I’m sure this can be quite challenging, especially when it comes to toys.
We focus on toys that can be re-used. So the kids build a lot with Keva planks, Lego and Plus Plus, in addition to getting into the costume boxes to play dress up. One-off toys that accomplish just a single purpose often simple take up space, falling out of favour quickly and forcing you to store something that’s become useless.
We don’t spend much time in toy stores and the kids don’t watch TV with commercials, so there’s not much in the way of temptation. We prefer instead to play at the beach or park and bring a few implements that can be used to manipulate the world around us – i.e. toy shovels, rakes and buckets.
We also frequently make trips to the Family Resource Centre, where we donate items our family no longer needs to families who can’t afford those things in the first place! Not only is this a great lesson for the kids in how we help those who are less fortunate, but it’s imperative if we want to keep our own space livable.
I also found out that you have a point system in place to motivate you children to do a few simple household chores. Please elaborate on this ingenious idea.
I am a videogame designer by trade, so I’m always thinking of gamified systems that can engender positive traits among the kids. This one isn’t particularly ingenious, but it had to be a system that scaled infinitely without costing me huge amounts of money to incentive five kids to do chores.
So we bought a roll of those “Admit One” tickets from the dollar store and assigned arbitrary point values to chores – i.e. five tickets for taking out the garbage, two tickets for vacuuming, and so forth. The kids write their names on the tickets they earn and put them in a glass jar in the kitchen. The kid with the most tickets at the end of the week wins three kinder eggs, everyone with at least one ticket in the jar gets a single egg each.
The flexibility of this system is its strength. If one child gets too far out in front of the others, I can spontaneously double the reward for taking out the garbage to re-incentivize the trailing children to pitch in. And when those kids start to catch up, the complacent leader becomes a little restless and wants to do chores again as well…
I’m sure there is no shortage of entertaining things to do in downtown Vancouver. Can you give us a few examples of activities you do as a family in Yaletown?
There are too many to list.
Our go-to activities involve frequenting the local parks and beaches of course, because they are free, plentiful and close by. But on more special occasions we head to the movie theatre, either biking or walking (we had 8 kids and 3 adults there the other day), or go to the Vancouver Art Gallery (kids free on Sundays), or Science World or the Aquarium (we have family memberships to each), or FlyOver Canada (which they love), the Seawall, a farmer’s market, food truck, comic book shop or the Planetarium.
We’re always discovering new things – that’s the great part of living downtown is that the menu for things to do is so deep and so frequently changing that we’ll never get bored.
I realize that your kids are still young for now, but do you see yourself living in the same condo with 5 teens and tweens 8 years from now? Do you think you will be forced to move into a larger space when that time comes?
I get this question a lot, mostly as a statement by people who don’t believe that raising kids downtown or in small spaces (i.e. condos) is feasible. People raising kids in big homes are very invested in their decision, as it comes with a lot of upkeep, isolation, and a renouncement of much of the social trappings of their younger lives.
The time I recover from never commuting, the happiness I get from never driving, the money I save from not maintaining a house or myriad other material things – all that focus gets reinvested in my family, friends an active social life.
Sure, when the kids get older we might need to tweak our living arrangement – maybe 1200 square feet will be more appropriate than 1000. Or maybe we’ll get away with simply enlarging the girls’ room a bit, at the expense of the living room.
The bottom line is it’s never a good idea to lock yourself into a situation that exceeds your needs, based on the idea that you might need it one day. I’d rather be forced to move into a slightly larger place if and when that situation arises, than be in a 3000 square foot house, always trying to justify its unnecessary financial and psychological overhead and giving up large chunks of my life to do so.
With a family of five kids, they’ll never have their own bedrooms. We’re already lucky enough to have two bathrooms (one for kids, one for adults). So what are we lacking exactly, as they get older? And by the time they’re teenagers, they might enjoy living downtown even more than we do!