Friday, May 10, 2013

Bob Ransford's perspective on Hollyburn Mews Vancouver Sun May 10, 2013

Shared space on limited supply of land equals affordable housing

West Van’s Hollyburn Mews a good example

By Bob Ransford, Vancouver Sun May 10, 2013

Hollyburn Mews in West Vancouver
In a recent column, I suggested Metro Vancouver municipalities eliminate the single-family zoning so that we can more efficiently use land to satisfy the demand for housing.

Vancouver already permits up to three dwellings on most single family lots — a primary residence, a secondary suite and a laneway in-fill house. With more than 500 laneway houses built or under construction across the city and with mortgage-helping secondary suites ubiquitous not just in Vancouver, but throughout the region, we can see that two or three dwellings on a lot that traditionally only accommodated one works.
This kind of gentle density accomplishes many things. First, it provides housing diversity for an evolving society. An aging population means many people have different housing needs than they did two or three decades ago. Maintaining a large detached home on a big lot just isn’t in the cards any more for a lot of people. Nor does everyone want to live in an apartment building. Ground-oriented housing is still the smartest option for many.

Land prices have made it difficult in recent years to build rental housing. The economics simply don’t work. Using land more efficiently, such as by allowing laneway houses and basement suites, makes the economics of rental housing work at a small scale. Moreover, instead of development on a mass scale by developers, this is development by individual homeowners who can release equity they have built up in their own homes — one lot at a time.

How does the intensification of single-family neighbourhoods work on the ground in real physical form? Well, we’ve seen small cottages sprout up in rear lanes across Vancouver over the last few years. Many have been built along with newly developed houses and others have been infill projects in back yards where the main house remains in place. They work. They are of a scale that doesn’t overwhelm and drastically change the character of the neighbourhood.

Michael Geller recently completed his Hollyburn Mews project in West Vancouver. He redeveloped three side-by-side typical single-family lots. On what would have been each lot, he has sensitively designed and built two 2 1/2 storey side-by-side asymmetrical duplex units that reflect the single-family character along the street. Each duplex looks in scale the same as a single-family house. Each duplex home ranges between about 2,150 and 2,500 square feet, including a basement. 

A 1 1/2 storey coach house, about 1,800 square feet in size, sits behind each duplex. It, too, has a basement. He’s fit in one garage for each home.
What impresses me most about Hollyburn Mews is the sense of community the grouping of three homes creates, with homeowners sharing a small front yard area and an interior outdoor space. Every home has its own private outdoor space, but the shared space promises neighbourliness and daily social interaction. This development — nine units across three lots — creates, in effect, a pocket neighbourhood within a neighbourhood.

What Hollyburn Mews demonstrated to me is that we can fit more dwellings on the limited supply of land in our cities. That means more affordable housing.

In fact, while Geller’s project doesn’t have separate basement suites, the building form could certainly be adapted in a different location to provide them. Each unit — the duplex homes and the coach houses — could have basement rental suites and the design and neighbourhood character would not only work but would likely benefit from it.

So, up to six homes could be sensitively designed on a 50 foot wide by approximate 120 foot deep lot. There would be three basement suites of about 600 to 700 square feet each, a coach house of 1,100 to 1,250 square feet and two duplex units of 1,400 to 1,500 square feet each. Imagine families with a couple of kids living in the duplex homes, young singles in basement suites and active seniors in the coach houses. 

That’s housing diversity and no developer is needed.

This scale of housing, sensitively designed for neighbourly living doesn’t disrupt a neighbourhood. It slowly and gently transforms it, making it better by providing the housing we all need.

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with Counterpoint Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land-use issues. Email: or Twitter:@BobRansford

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun


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