Saturday, June 18, 2016

Vancouver Sun: Homes Away from Home June 18, 2016 Residential Lessons to be Learned from the Netherlands

As Vancouver struggles with increasingly high housing prices, there is a growing interest in what other world cities are doing to maintain housing affordability. 

Should we build more government housing like Singapore and Hong Kong? Should we put restrictions on foreign buyers as they do in Sydney? Should we increase property taxes on vacant units, like they are now doing in Jerusalem? (even though vacant units place fewer demands on municipal services than occupied housing.)

While I will leave it to the urban land economists and others to debate the pros and cons of these and other fiscal interventions, I believe Vancouver could offer more affordable housing choices by allowing alternative forms of housing found elsewhere around the world. 

Recently, I journeyed through the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark with Vancouver architect Richard Henriquez. While we agreed Vancouver could offer these countries lessons when it comes to the design of new communities, we were impressed with forms of housing not generally being built in our region.

In future columns I will present some of the fascinating developments we saw in Germany and Denmark. However, this week I would like to share two fascinating Dutch housing solutions: street rowhouses and an unusual floating home community. 

Unlike Vancouver, where row houses are nearly always built by developers as part of a condominium or rental complex, in Holland rowhouses are often individually designed and built on small narrow lots. These homes are privately owned, like a single family house, and not sold as part of a condominium. In most jurisdictions there are rigid zoning and design guidelines to ensure a coordinated street appearance. However, there are exceptions, where the rules are less strict.

On an outing to IJburg, a new satellite town about 20 minutes by tram and 30 minutes by bicycle from Amsterdam city centre, we came across a delightful street lined with unique, individually designed row houses.

I first visited IJburg four years earlier and will never forget meeting the government official in charge of planning and development. I was impressed by how much land the government owned and asked how it was acquired. “We make it” was his response.

One day, IJburg will be home to 45,000 residents on ten man-made islands being created by dredging IJburg lake. Six islands have already been completed and the town offers a broad mix of housing, commercial spaces and amenities. Well not so broad. There are few structures more than 8 storeys in height.

While the community includes single family houses, market and non-market ownership and rental developments, I was particularly impressed with the streets lined with colourful, individually designed two, three and four level attached homes.

In Holland and many other countries, individually constructed attached rowhouses are the equivalent of the detached houses built throughout Metro Vancouver. However, unlike typical Canadian houses, the homes are built right up to the sideyards, and often the front property line as well. As a result, one can create 2,000+ square foot homes on lots as small as 1500 square feet and less. The resulting density is significantly higher than the density of newer single family neighbourhoods around Metro.

Some of the IJburg homes looked like the sort of thing an architect would design for his or herself. That is because they were. Chatting with a local resident, we learned that architects had been amongst the first residents willing to purchase lots and build houses on her street.

This type of housing offers many advantages. Since these houses are built on separate, legal parcels of land, they are not part of a condominium. There are no strata fees and the owners can maintain or modify their homes without having to seek their neighbours’ approval. Furthermore, the increased density can help support public transit, something not possible in Vancouver’s lower density single family neighbourhoods. 
Wandering behind one of the IJburg streets we came upon a back lane lined with larger laneway houses. Unlike Vancouver’s smaller rental units, these beautiful homes were for sale. Given the many back lanes throughout Metro, one can only hope that one-day larger, family sized laneway houses for sale will be permitted. After all, some Vancouver residents are already purchasing laneway houses through complex tenants-in-common legal arrangements, facilitated by innovative financial institutions like Vancity.
Elsewhere in IJburg we came across a floating home community. While many people live on the water throughout the Netherlands, and there are numerous floating home communities, what makes this development so special is that it is comprised of attached dwellings; it’s a floating townhouse development. Moreover, the homes even have basements!

Completed in 2011, there are 75 homes in the community, nearly all of which have their own boat docked outside. The development was designed by Architects Marlies Rohmer, in a neighbourhood known as Waterbuurt or Water District. 
The floating homes are built from lightweight steel and wood panels on top of buoyant concrete tubs, submerged in the water to a depth of half a storey. Some bedrooms and a bathroom are contained in the lowest storey, which is partly submerged. The raised ground floor houses kitchen and dining spaces with balconies and bedrooms and outdoor terraces above. 

The houses were built at a shipyard about 65 km north of the site and then transported though canal locks, which limited their width. To ensure the homes don’t drift away or bang into one another, they are anchored to the lake bed by steel mooring poles. 

As more and more Vancouverites are ready to downsize from a single family house, or move up from an apartment, an individually owned row house fronting onto a public street might be just the answer. Add in a laneway house at the rear and we have created what planners call gentle density and hidden density. 

And for those seeking something completely different, a floating home could be the answer. After all, you won’t have to worry about rising sea levels.

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