Posted on Oct 27, 2012 in Eliza Brownhome, Featured | 6 comments

When we moved out of the bus and into a house in July 2008, I found myself often pondering the difference between home and shelter. At the heart of it, our walls and roofs are there to shelter us from the elements, and I suppose, from danger (animals, strangers, thieves, and so on). For most of us I’d wager that they are far more than that.

My thought when I first made the transition from bus to house was that our modern world has taken this concept of shelter much farther than is perhaps necessary. In our duplex, I was so completely sheltered that I no longer had a daily, intimate connection with the outside world, including the weather and the neighbours. The living space was at the rear of the house and the side facing the street (and our neighbours) was dominated by our garage. Other than when we chanced to see someone as we came or went from our front door, we had no interactions with our neighbours. We also felt completely cut-off from the natural world, behind our double-pane windows and cozy with our electric baseboard heaters.

duplexityIn the bus, our lives were intertwined with the weather. We could hear the rain dripping, tapping, drumming, slamming on the metal roof (only a few feet above our heads as we slept). We had a woodstove to stoke and a propane furnace to feed (40Lbs of propane—two BBQ tanks—every 4 days in the winter). We monitored our propane usage to try to avoid the dreaded scenario where we would run out in the middle of the night, which meant waking to see our breath in the morning and no chance for hot tea (propane stove) or a hot face cloth (propane water heater). Without leaving our home, we could tell when the temperature dipped or climbed outside. We could tell if it was stormy by the sound of the rain on the roof and the rocking of the wind. In the winter, we had to wrap our water lines with insulation and cover our 26 windows with plastic. In the summer, every window and both doors would be wide open to circulate air as the temperature in our metal box home climbed to the 40’s.

Those rows of single pane windows also put us in touch with our neighbourhood. We learned quickly the value of curtains, living on the corner where a city bike route intersected with one of the most well-used East Vancouver parks. Being an unusual sight in the city and being in a high traffic location put us in touch with our community: the dog-walkers, the families, the bicycle commuters, the Farmer’s marketers. We certainly didn’t blend in, try as we might. We felt as if we were an integral part of a vibrant community. We heard stories of people in other parts of the city talking about the bus at Trout Lake. Our community included strangers who would only nod as they walked by, it included the regular passers-by that we would recognize around the city or on The Drive, it included the neighbour who babysat for us, the neighbour who brought back gifts from Bali, the neighbour with a hat collection.

bus garden

We lived in our duplex for a year and never really got to know anyone in our community. Our street was a cul-de-sac but there were no street hockey games, no block parties. Often when we got in the van to go somewhere, nothing would be moving, no life would be visible. The duplexes around the cul-de-sac were all the same. We disappeared. Our neighbours disappeared. Once inside, we were sheltered, cut-off. No chance to create or feel a community.


Our time living in that duplex felt like a year of sensory deprivation.  Our duplex never did feel like a home because homes are not meant to shelter us from community. Our four walls don’t just ward off danger; the keep family together. They embrace us. They connect us. In most parts of the world, homes are not built in isolation, but in groups. They connect us not just in our small family units, but also one to the other.

Sometimes it feels like our society has it all wrong. We’ve taken the concept of shelter to the extreme and we’ve blocked out, not just the elements, but the world.

I want my home to be a shelter as a safe haven, as in safety from storms and safety in numbers, shelter as a gathering place, and shelter as a beautiful thing to yearn for when you’re lost in the wilderness.


  1. You know we lived in Panama for a couple years with Peace Corps. Our house was made of slat boards and with gaps between them, a cement floor and a corrugated tin roof. Our windows were just holes in the walls with a shutter to pull closed at night and when it rained. We were very much in touch with our neighbors and the weather! I miss that.
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    • I had a look at your post there and saw that lovely place you lived in Panama…and I can see how you would miss it. I can see how it wouldn’t feel like something you’d want to sign on to forever, but I can see the appeal too.

      …and I think that’s the thing with us living in this bus, now with 3 kids…it isn’t something we are going to do forever. It isn’t perfect. But last time we left it behind, we missed it. And the next time we do, I’m sure we’ll miss it again. I can see the appeal of a more conventional home, conventional life. There are benefits to both lifestyles, just as there are losses with both. I wonder if there is a way to balance both extremes.

      • There are people who I think do manage a happy medium. There are lots of folks starting intentional communities, living in strawbale houses or cabins. There is also the whole tiny house movement. And quite honestly, sometimes I think a trailer home would be wonderful if you found the right plot of land or community.
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        • Yes, certainly, and a happy medium is a totally acceptable and achievable goal. Though, I would question the idea that “lots of folks” are doing this. It depends where you look, I’m sure. Sometimes it feels like a lot of people to me too because of the people we meet, the boards I follow on pinterest etc. But still, when you compare all those folks with the total population of Canada or the States, it’s still an overwhelming minority. Still, it’s so great to see all the people who are on that train, and who are spreading the word.

  2. I’ve lived in this house for nine years, and I know a few of my neighbours by first name, but not many. I’m not that outgoing, to be honest. But also, I do feel the sheltering element. It’s nice to have space, but I often believe that maybe we have too much.
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    • I’m introverted and shy so it’s hard for me to get to know my neighbours. It helps that Aaron is so personable. He meets everyone and then I warm up to them over time. Honestly, I think garages and driveways in front of houses don’t make it very easy to get to know neighbours (when you’re doing all your hanging out in the backyard, behind the fence). Would be cool to bring back the front stoop, and you know, drop houses by a couple of 100 square feet, and see if that changed neighbourhoods (even for the non-outgoing among us). 🙂

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