“We wanted to do the impossible—fit three families under one roof”: How one big brood is weathering the pandemic in their Markham home

“We wanted to do the impossible—fit three families under one roof”: How one big brood is weathering the pandemic in their Markham home

Top from left to right: Pak Hung Ho, Roger How Cho Hee, and Christine How Cho Hee Bottom from left to right: Eric How Cho Hee, Charlotte How-Fang and Li Wen Fang

Before Covid-19, Eric How Cho Hee, an IT consultant, and Li Wen Fang, a social worker and psychotherapist, ambitiously decided to build a grand family home in Markham for themselves, their parents and an uncle. Their friends thought the well-meaning but wacky idea would never work. But as it happens, living in one giant 7,000-square-foot household bubble is smart when you need each other most.

Eric: In early 2017, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s so I thought it would be best to move in with my parents. I owned the house where they lived in Markham, and we were going back-and-forth frequently to visit each other every week, anyway.

Li Wen: We wanted to do what seemed like the impossible: fit three families under one roof. My parents spend most of their time in Australia with my brother, but they would visit Canada occasionally for long periods before the pandemic, so we wanted to include space for them, too.

Li Wen’s home office is directly across from the front door

Eric: At the time, Li Wen and I lived in an 1,800-square-foot side-split nearby for six years. We liked the area, but the house was nowhere near big enough for our new needs. In September 2017, we sold the mortgage-free house my parents were living in for more than what we paid for and used the money to raze our place and build a new multi-generational home. We rented a house while our new one was being built. The 7,000 square-foot update by Solares Architecture would have enough room for us, our two year old, Charlotte, our four parents and Li Wen’s 70-year-old uncle, Pak Hung Ho.

Li Wen: My uncle Pak took care of me when I immigrated to Canada in 2001, and now that he’s getting older, I wanted to return the favour. My friends weren’t optimistic about the idea—most people choose to live apart from their extended family. But we ignored the naysayers and plunged right in.

The dining room, living room and kitchen were designed as one large space, so the family can hang out and enjoy meals together. The quirky fireplace is by Stûv
The double-height loft space is one half floor up from the main level. It’s also Charlotte’s preferred play area

Eric: When plans were submitted to the committee of adjustment to apply for variances, one neighbour speaking against our application suggested we needed such a big home to run an Airbnb business. Our architects decided to submit a finished plan and it was available for everyone to see.

Li Wen: Our trick to making it work was to ensure everyone has their own private space carved into the plan. We wanted each area to feel like its own cushy apartment—with a staircase and elevator connecting the halves. We asked for heated floors and shower benches for the older set. And a 17-foot-long pool and sauna in the basement.

Charlotte is a regular at the basement swim spa. She’s a natural at wading in the water

Eric: Li Wen, Charlotte and I moved in in October 2019 while other areas of the house were still being worked on. The rest of the household joined us in November, once the house was in a more finished state.

Li Wen: We hired Renee Godin of Interiors by Renee, who sourced all of the furniture and oversaw the decor, which was helpful in such a large, segmented home. She suggested adding colours and patterns because the house felt too white and sterile. But the bright orange Blue Star oven in the kitchen is Eric’s doing. He’s the cook in the family and he wanted something nice.

Uncle Pak is set up to host morning tea in his section of the home

Eric: My wife and I pay for all of the utilities, housekeeping and property taxes. Before the pandemic, my parents and Li Wen’s uncle would buy the additional items or other foods they needed. But we all share. We don’t divvy up the bills and we don’t charge them any rent. I go buy all groceries, and everyone takes turns cooking the various meals. I used to browse and see what’s on sale when I went to the store. Now it’s more focused. I grab and go. I’m out in less than an hour.

Li Wen: Uncle Pak’s area is dubbed “the tea room” because that’s where the family starts the day, with a tea ritual. My parents have an amazing wing on the other side of our bedroom; they are living in Australia now but that could change. Despite the endless space to wander, we mostly kick back together in the kitchen. A wall of large patio doors bring a lot of natural light into the kitchen, and they slide open easily for the seniors to access the patio and backyard. The 17,000-square-foot backyard has allowed the seniors to get fresh air in safe surroundings as the weather has gotten better.

A floor-to-ceiling window looks out at a portion of the expansive backyard
Patio doors slide open for easy access from the main level

Eric: The house isn’t complete yet. Since November 2019, we have slowly been adding finishing touches, like window coverings and missing cranks plus drywall touch ups. But we consider ourselves very lucky to be living in our new home. The combination of common space and private space has allowed us to weather the pandemic rather well. That’s not to say there is no tension, but that’s to be expected even during the best of times.

Li Wen and Eric’s master suite has a windsor bedframe and wallcovering, which gives it a woodsy cabin vibe
A view of Eric and Li Wen’s balcony from the backyard

Li Wen: One of my friends hasn’t seen her mom in two months because they didn’t allow visitors in her long-term care facility. I feel lucky everyone is together and safe at home. Eric and I are both working from here. My home office is directly across from the front door. It doesn’t have a separate entrance, and I haven’t seen patients here, but I do talk to them over video conference. Before the nice weather, in the early days of the lockdown, Charlotte would constantly knock on my home-office door during my calls with clients. That was tricky, but despite the disturbances, I’m happy to not have to commute to Scarborough every day like I used to.

Eric: I had negotiated working from home twice a week before the pandemic, so shifting my routine to full-time at home hasn’t changed too much professionally. Our built-in babysitter brigade takes turns watching Charlotte as she sprints around the backyard, where she collects branches and plays with her new mini-kitchen. She also has a small slide and a water and sand station.

Li Wen: Charlotte has become the main source of entertainment for all the adults. Before this, she was in daycare most days and we didn’t have that much time with her.

Charlotte’s bedroom has mini midcentury-modern furniture and a toddler-size trundle bed

Eric: The different areas of the house have helped us keep our daughter entertained, too. She uses the swim spa regularly. She has become pretty good and comfortable at wading in the water.

Li Wen: Eric has nurtured a love of baking, churning out four to five loaves a week. He makes farmer bread and baguettes. We used to buy bread from Longo’s, but nothing is fresher than this.

Eric: Every two weeks, we also get a box of produce and meat delivered from a farm. Still, the seniors really miss going for dim sum each Sunday. And they have a touch of cabin fever, despite all the room to move about and the indoor pool.

Li Wen: To combat the boredom, my father-in-law, Roger, does weekly Zoom meetings with his geriatric day program. They exercise for 20 minutes and then talk about the news, but it’s hard because he can’t hear very well. Other seniors have attempted to boldly escape. One day, I found my mother-in-law, Christine, sneaking out. She said she was going for a walk, and that she wanted to start the car so the battery wouldn’t die. I think she might have been headed to one of her favourite spots: the supermarket. They are not as nervous as us—they’ve seen so much in their lives.