Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Tour of Vancouver's Laneway Housing 'Experiment'

I spent Saturday afternoon on the Vancouver Heritage Foundation's Laneway Housing Tour. Why did the VHF sponsor a tour of new laneway houses? Because it hopes that zoning permission for laneway homes will help protect the older heritage housing stock around the city.

While this might be possible, I think there would be a greater likelihood if the zoning by-law had been written differently. Instead of the current approach, I would not have granted 'free density' for the laneway units. Instead, I would have set an upper limit on the permitted density for each lot, and offered the owner the choice of building a larger new home with a small laneway unit, or keeping a smaller 'heritage' home, and building a larger laneway unit.

I was fortunate to tour the homes with Geri Boyle and Steve Mikicich from the West Vancouver Planning department. Steve has had a longstanding interest in heritage buildings and both were interested in learning more about the Vancouver Laneway Housing Experience as they consider possible zoning changes one day in West Vancouver. Both had some very good observations, and hopefully they will share them....perhaps here on this blog.

I want to share three observations:
  • When I first learned that the city might approve laneway housing, I formed a new company Laneway Cottages Inc. to undertake their development. My concept was to use prefabricated modules to build predominantly single level 'cottage style' units. For me, the ideal was an affordable 12' by 36' unit that would fit on a 33' by 120' lot and still allow two parking spaces. Unfortunately, this approach did not fit the zoning by-law since it would have intruded too far into the rear yard. However, having seen what has been built, I am convinced this approach would have been much less intrusive, and much more successful than many of the larger two storey (oh, I'm and a half storey) units that have been built.
  • While I am generally supportive of reduced parking requirments, in the case of the laneway housing 'experiment', I thought it would be prudent to require another parking space on any lot with a laneway unit, since there could be three units on the lot when considering the basement suite. However, Council disagreed. The result? Most of the new developments have only one garage for the three units....HOWEVER, the garage often has large windows, a patio door, and in-floor radiant heating! Hello? Do you think this is going to be used as a garage? While one homeowner on the tour tried to tell me that her garage would be used for a car, and the radiant heating was there since she cares about her car, I think we all know better. So the result may be NO ON-SITE PARKING for three units. Why do I care? Because I don't want this experiment to fail, and I fear that parking problems may ultimately kill the program in some neighbourhoods.
  • I was surprised by many of the interior layouts. In particular, although the units were small, the kitchens were very large, often with full sized appliances. However, the resulting living/dining areas were much too small to be useful. I believe a smaller, compact kitchen with a proper eating and living area would be a better solution. Of course, some residents may be planning to use the garage as their dining or living areas!
Notwithstanding these criticisms I agree with Brent Toderian that laneway housing does offer the potential for 'hidden or gentle densification' around the city. I think this type of housing best works on corner lots, or lots with smaller homes that will remain. However, I truly believe that a zoning by-law could be developed that better addresses neighbourhood fit, parking, and 'heritage preservation'. Hopefully other jurisdictions will succeed where Vancouver may fail, by learning from the Vancouver experiment. Here are some more photos from the tour:
Also a few laneway houses that were not on the tour...


susan said...

Michael, thank you for sharing your observations.
I think that smaller appliances are certainly a good option.
My 84 year old Aunt cooks almost everything, including her abundance of Xmas cookies, in her counter top convection, broiler, rotisserie, & toaster oven.
The oven in her large stove gets used to roast the big TURKEY, once or twice a year.
I also really like your pre-fab homes model idea!

Tessa said...

Thanks for the photos and the comments. I wish I could have taken the tour, but unfortunately it was far too pricey for me to justify, no matter how interesting it was.

As for the parking use, I think the more flexibility people have to use their garage as something other than parking, the better. I currently live in a duplex that's effectively split into three different rental units on one single family lot. We have a large gravel parking area out back, but nobody living here owns a car, so it sits empty as wasted space. If people want to use their garage as a garage, that's great. If not, why should we force them to have an empty concrete bunker in their home?

I do enjoy hearing your concerns about the backyard intrusion, however, and I think you raise a good point there. The one-story homes ought to be more viable, especially if elderly parents are going to live there.

D said...

Interesting tour, and thanks for the post. Has there been any discussion on relaxing/reducing front yard setback requirements where a laneway house is contemplated? Many (most?) Vancouver front yards are fairly deep (6+ meters) and it seems as though it would better to move the main house forward (or build a new one) closer to the sidewalk (maybe a 2 or 3m heavily landscaped setback?), thereby offering a larger backyard that can get a bit more sun and be more easily shared, while offering more privacy than the ornamental yard in the front.

Michael Geller said...

Thanks for the comments. D, that's an excellent point and should be discussed with planning as zoning by-laws are fine-tuned in the future...

Michael Kluckner said...

I think the off-street parking requirement will just create an extra room for the lane house -- not what is intended. I liked the picture windows on one garage especially! And I agree that the kitchen was way too big, too lavish, and the living area too small, in the one where I spent the day as a volunteer.
At $250 K, these will take nearly 20 years to pay off as rentals so they're impractical in that way. Maybe a small prefab module would be better? My concern is that it's just another bit of development potential now factored into the price of a house, making the single-family home ever more of a business whether owners like it or not.
Love the blog!

Stephen said...

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?

Stephen said...

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?

Carla Guerrera said...

Excellent Piece Michael!
Having recently replanted myself to Vancouver from Toronto, I am particularly interested in Vancouver's laneway housing policy.
This is something that many in Toronto have advocated for for many years given the city's growth plans and miles of laneways that exist, but has yet to be implemented through policy in the city.
Having said that, I share your concern regarding parking. It is always a bit concerning to not fully take these potential downfalls into account that could make such a potentially successful initiative fail. I am sure that the concern from council could be that a blanket policy for parking to support laneway housing would be too much for the City to bear but the parking allottment could be guided by the proximity to the new transit stations on the City's expanded transit network. New units close to transit wouldnt need additional parking in the same way that the units without transit access would.

My other concern is, as one other before me noted, the character of these laneways. As the new front door for these units, what will this new publlic realm evolve to be?? How can the character be improved? How do these dark and often dingy laneways evolve and become more welcoming and safer?

Too bad that I missed this interesting tour, but thanks for allowing me to experience it through your blog :-)

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