DIY or Die: How to Start a House

Montreal Needs More Houses, So Let Me Tell You How to Start One

Graphic Elizabeth Xu

Houses really just act as a space for generally DIY (Do-it-Yourself) minded people to come and prosper. Houses are really special spaces where a lot of incredible art and experience can form out of nothing and change your life forever, and I’m here to tell you that you can do it too.

I’m sure you’ve been to a House before. You probably knew someone in high school, some older person still living in your town, running shows in their gross, damp basement, or maybe just in their living room. Living here in Montreal, you’ve probably passed by a building or a duplex or some other structure now and again, with little homemade bee-houses, or little urban permaculture set ups, with little explainers on how to build your own sticking out of the ground beside them.

These are Houses—buildings, or just apartments, usually occupied by a number of people, that offer spaces for things like workshops, community-building activities, and, most of all, underground shows. Sometimes music, sometimes visual or performance art, Houses really just act as a space for generally DIY (Do-it-Yourself) minded people to come and prosper. I’ve seen and lived in Houses; they’re really special spaces where a lot of incredible art and experience can form out of nothing and change your life forever, and I’m here to tell you that you can do it too.

How To Get It Started

The first hurtle to best in the quest of starting your own space is pretty much the most obvious one—finding the place. Unless you’re one of the lucky few to inherit a castle from a recently deceased estranged uncle, or you built a giant log cabin, lumberjack-style, in the middle of the woods, you’re probably going to have to actually go out and locate a suitable space.

I’m assuming here, as well, that you’re not an eccentric millionaire and don’t have a ton of disposable income to throw down on a building or a lot to build one. So, you’re going to have to find a building with an amenable (or ignorant) landlord, preferably the former, because there’s nothing worse than a shitty landlord that’ll shut you down as soon as he finds out about your little goings-on.

But, never fear, because there are plenty of landlords who are totally supportive of community spaces and will help you, as long as you can promise to maintain at least some standards. I’ll get into those later.

When it comes to the space’s architecture, I always recommend that the more desolate the area, and the more industrial the living space, the better off you are. Sort of try to think as if you were a serial killer; ask things like, “Are these walls soundproofed? Is this area sort of hard to find? Do I have any especially conservative neighbours?”

Ideally, your house will be relatively isolated, but not super difficult to get to. You’ll have a large space and your only neighbours will be businesses that close at night, people who are really interested in joining your cause or people at least resigned to what you’re doing or no one.

Choose your roommates carefully. Make sure everyone’s on the same page about a vision for the House; do you want to run shows all the time, host bands every night? How often will you want events like workshops scheduled? How often will you want to take time off? What will be your guest policies? If you have a lot of permaculture or just general house goings on, figure out a chore wheel for maintenance. Tell any neighbours that you’re here now and maintain a good working relationship with them.

Starting a House is honestly the easiest part of the whole affair. It’s the keeping it open that’s so goddamn difficult.

Maintaining Your House/Maintaining Your Community

Move in. Name the House. Invite your friends over, and tell them to bring their friends. Throw a House-warming event, with all your friends’ bands and their friends’ bands and all the artists you know or have heard of, and invite everyone in the neighbourhood. If things get rowdy, at least make sure all the loud music is over by midnight, for courtesy’s sake. Collect money at the door, but don’t keep it for yourself—pay it forward to bands, artists or people who need it. If the house needs cash for things, make sure everyone knows exactly how much, and for what. Be as transparent as possible.

Make sure everyone is safe. Make sure no one is racist, misogynist or in any way non-inclusive. Talk to people. Be kind and understanding. When people ask for help, help them. When people don’t want your help, let them be and don’t hold a grudge about it. Forgive people, and forget things.

Show yourself to be a non-judgemental party, and really listen to people, and work hard to show empathy and understanding.

Encourage people to get involved. If someone’s at your show alone, talk to them, make them feel welcome. Regularly check in with people about their mental states, make sure no one who wants help is left alone. Encourage communication amongst everyone. Be inclusive—try and be the catalyst that gets projects off the ground. Offer your spaces for people to throw their own events, and try and teach people how to best run their events.

Do all these things for as long as you can, and really live by these rules, and maybe your space will last. Maybe you’ll eventually be offered the option of going legitimate—like Turbo Haüs—or maybe one-too-many noise complaints will finally get you shut down. Maybe you’ll just move on. But no matter the end result, if you start a House, and if you run it right, keeping in mind your ethics and respecting and loving everyone you possibly can, I guarantee that that House will never leave you. Even when it’s gone, I guarantee your House will stay with you, and everyone who ever went there, forever.