Creating spaces for conversations at an open house

May 29, 2024

What housing options exist for older adult homeowners in a polycrisis of climate emergency, social isolation and affordability?

The project

Older adults (age 55+) in Canada are staying in their single-detached homes longer than ever for a variety of reasons: Populations are healthier and living longer; some are facing high costs of housing, lack of downsizing options, or a desire to stay in a familiar community and live independently.  

The Housing Solutions Lab had one primary guiding question: Could a matchmaking program pairing tenants and older adult homeowners (age 55+) attract homeowners to home sharing, or renting out a secondary suite or laneway house on their property? 

The Lab explored more affordable, climate-friendly and socially supportive housing options for older adults on Vancouver's North Shore. We collaborated with Hollyburn Community Services Society to connect community insights and expert knowledge to address the growing mismatch between the current housing stock and the evolving needs of our aging population.

In this Solutions Lab, each engagement with residents and service providers built on previous conversations, providing space to identify key barriers and iterate ideas and features for a matchmaking pilot program. 

The open house

The open house was the third event in a series of engagements that we hosted through the Lab. It was our first ‘public engagement,’ intended for a wide audience. During the first two rounds of engagement workshops, we worked with older adult homeowners, community service providers, advocates, local government staff and subject matter experts.  

We had two goals for the open house: 

  • Raise interest and awareness among North Shore residents about housing options like home sharing, secondary suites and laneway houses

  • Receive feedback on the initial design of a matchmaking program, gauge community interest and support for these housing options and create space for active participation, deliberation and conversation

One of four stations at our open house

Open houses can be passive events where visitors read material at their own pace. They might ask questions to staff, or they might fill out a feedback form at the end. 

Our team wanted to experiment with using a more interactive and conversational format in the open house so that we could get immediate feedback, input and responses to the topic in discussion. 

Our approach

1. Encouraging active participation through a dialogue approach

We chose a dialogue approach to encourage active participation and feedback, rather than merely sharing information with a passive audience.

Each station featured information posters, handouts and mini engagement activities. Facilitators shared small bits of information at each station, then asked the group to share their reactions, drawing on their life experiences. For example, when discussing the state of housing on the North Shore, participants were asked if it matched their experience and if any perspectives were missing – a version of a data walk.  

We sought to frame the conversations in a way that encouraged participants to: 

  • Enter the conversation with respect for all parties

  • Share personally and honestly, with stories about personal experiences (where comfortable)

  • Listen earnestly

  • Identify shared values

Lesson learned: Less content, more conversation

One challenge was balancing education/information sharing with conversation. Each participant brought their own knowledge and experience about different topics, some as experts, some that were new to the subjects. The public nature of the open house made it difficult to ensure the conversation reflected the range of knowledge about the topics in discussion. 

Despite our efforts to keep the amount of information ‘bite sized,’ the amount of information that we asked facilitators to share and the text at each station was still quite high. Next time we will reduce the content further to key points only. This can help ensure more space for conversations. We can balance the need for information by ensuring support/resource staff are nearby and ready to provide more details to participants as needed.

2. Guided conversations 

We set up the open house so that participants could join guided conversations by either booking in advance or joining a group as a walk-in. A trained facilitator guided the group though each station, providing background information and offering discussion questions throughout the conversation. Most participants (including walk-ins) chose to join a guided conversation. One timeslot was reserved specifically for elected officials and municipal staff to provide a more focused conversation from a local government lens. 

The open house was designed with four stations, starting with context, potential options, costs and benefits, and then broadening out to the wider content. Each station built on the previous to support a natural, guided conversation.

Lesson learned: Have a plan to address power dynamics in conversation groups

A challenge of this model was the mixed demographics of groups. We heard feedback that a few participants felt uncomfortable sharing their thoughts in the presence of a municipal councilor that joined their group as a walk-in. Differing power dynamics in groups are often a factor in group conversations. For future iterations, we could provide the facilitators with more specific guidance for navigating these instances or highlight other ways for participants to share their thoughts.

3. Assembling a team of facilitators and notetakers  

We trained facilitators and notetakers prior to the open house to ensure they were prepared and comfortable with the material. Facilitators and notetakers were not expected to be subject matter experts. 

A team of rotating facilitators followed a prearranged schedule to lead guided conversations every 20 minutes for the four-hour open house. Each conversation lasted around one hour. 

Notetakers at each station used a notetaking template that included specific guidance about the information we wanted to capture from the conversations. 

Our staff were available as active listeners and resource people that facilitators could call on if participants wished to continue the conversation or were interested in more details.  

Lesson learned: Have a plan and be ready to adjust on-the-fly

This format required plenty of facilitators to be scheduled to regularly lead a conversation, alongside adjustments to the rotation on-the-fly to reflect the ebb and flow of attendees. 

Given the length of each guided conversation and the duration of the open house, scheduling breaks for the team (e.g., facilitators, notetakers, support staff) was important to ensure everyone had the energy for subsequent sessions. 

Bringing dialogue to the public

Rather than having our open house be a one-way flow of information, we used a non-traditional approach and designed it like an interactive mini workshop for participants. This approach required a lot of planning and logistics, and ultimately allowed us to interact meaningfully with a range of interested and affected groups, gather feedback and showcase potential housing options.

What's next?

The Housing Solutions Lab concluded in March 2024. The final products of the Lab – including a library of resources and reports, the process design for the open house and other engagement workshops – are available through our new interactive website,