Friday, December 17, 2010

Laneway Housing: Guest Commentary from Stephen Mikicich


Stephen Mikicich and his colleague Gerri Boyle from the West Vancouver Planning Department accompanied me on the recent Heritage Foundation Laneway Housing Tour. Here are his observations, which I think are most worthy of careful consideration by other jurisdictions considering the introduction of Laneway Housing.

Heritage Vancouver’s laneway housing tour drew approximately 500 people, which is highly indicative of public interest and curiosity in the small house concept.

Each of the six tour homes was somewhat of a design experiment. Some were better executed than others, but each offered an interesting lifestyle opportunity. I kept trying to visualize who might ultimately be living in laneway houses:

- At an average cost of $300,000, rents for these units won’t be cheap.
- The detached units seem to work well when outdoor space is shared with the main house (rather than a small private patio space), which makes them well-suited to extended family situations.
- The single-level open plan concepts provided for better space utilization, and could accommodate a broader range of people, compared to the chopped-up spaces in the two-storey models.
- The relatively spacious kitchens and full-size appliances in most of the houses seemed out of scale with the concept of down-sized living.

I do believe that parking will become a major issue as more and more of these laneway houses are built. While the City’s transportation policies are increasingly transit and cycling focussed, the reality is that most of us still own a car and have to park it somewhere. If no parking is provided on site, what does this mean for character of the streetscape and the safety of pedestrians?

A number of local municipalities are trying to address concerns over limited housing choice and affordability. In particular, there is growing public interest in coach houses, laneway houses and other similar-scaled ‘infill’ dwellings. We often refer to this housing form as ‘gentle densification’ or ‘invisible density’ – as there are no visible changes to the neighbourhood from a ‘streetscape’ perspective.

Vancouver’s foray into laneway housing is shifting our attention to an emerging residential ‘lanescape’, with homes facing onto what have traditionally been service corridors for cars, garbage trucks, and utility poles.

The character of Vancouver’s rear lanes varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and block to block. Some are paved; some are unpaved. A handful have been ‘countrified’ through a recent pilot program. Some are through-lanes; whereas others have T-intersections or dead-ends. Each of these conditions creates a potentially unique environment for the introduction of laneway housing. It would be very interesting to see whether these conditions could generate more unique design responses.

One of the things my colleagues and I observed on the tour was that corner sites seemed to offer greater design options – including a street-facing front door. Of course, in these situations, can a laneway house still be called a ‘laneway’ house? Or, does this become another infill variant altogether?

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