All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Laneway homes (a photo essay)

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A cute laneway home in Grandview

A cute laneway home in Grandview

After the ruckus of last week’s planning meeting in Grandview, one is left with this quandary: is it possible to accommodate growth without changing the character of an area?

Much is at stake in this debate.  Areas such as Grandview pride themselves on their unique character, with independent shops, and a combination of housing that ranges from single-family housing to small rental apartments.  But both rents and real estate prices are going through the roof, driving away the independent shops, as well as the younger people who can’t afford the area.  Yet they are needed if the character of the area is to be preserved.  What do you do, if you’re a Vancouver city planner?

One of the smarter decisions, in that context, has been the promotion of laneway houses.  Recently the city announced that it had granted over 800 permits for laneway house constructions.  Not surprisingly, this development has attracted its share of disapproval and naysayers (an example of grousing here) .

I thought I’d see for myself the results in my neighbourhood.  I explored the lanes and counted every laneway house, complete or under construction, in the rectangle bounded by Broadway, Victoria Street, First Avenue, and Renfrew Street.

I counted 23 – not a huge number, but still impressive.  There are 74 blocks in the area I surveyed.  That’s roughly one laneway house every three blocks, and maybe that’s why it gives the impression that they’re everywhere; there were none a mere five years ago.

For that neighbourhood, that’s the equivalent of one full size apartment building, with two dozen 2- or 3-bedroom suites – but one that would be totally invisible and would in no way affect the character of any street.  Not bad.

It is a success that hasn’t gone unnoticed.  The practice is now extending, albeit timidly, to the suburbs.  And Alan Durning, in his wonderful in-depth study of densification issues and counter-productive policies, hails Vancouver’s laneway houses program as a model.

Developers are on board, obviously; when a new house goes up, it’s not much more work to put in a laneway house instead of a garage, but there’s a better return on the lot.  As a result, a lot of cookie-cutter laneway houses have appeared; they’re a bit boring, but so are the houses.  However, individual home-owners are also getting in on the action, and the result is a series of wonderful and unique homes.  I’m told that the real challenge is to get City Hall’s okay (a home that takes six months to build may be tied up for two years).  In between are the contractors that specialize in these small projects (see an example here), with some cute designs.

And why not?  Well, they’re not cheap (is anything in Vancouver?); depending on size, they range between $150,000 and over $300,000 (see examples of financial estimates here, here  and here, and rents here).  But with the rent they fetch, and with the current low mortgage rates, they are a good investment.  Some see them as a path to ownership in Vancouver for young people.

But who’d want to live on a lane?  Well, in many ways it beats a basement suite.  And, at least in my neighbourhood, these little houses are much more common on corner lots, allowing for views and a less confined feeling (this is follows the logic of the ill-fated thin street proposal, with a much lower impact). Some laneway houses even face parks!  And while many lanes are sterile or unappealing, some are actually quite nice.  Vancouver has neglected its lanes, and the coming of age of laneway houses may well be a spur to improve them.

Laneway houses are not the solution, by themselves.  Even if they were to further expand – and I hope they do – there are still too few of them to make much of a dent on Vancouver’s housing issues.  But they enable densification without sacrificing character, and that’s an important part of the solution.

A cute cookie-cutter home on a corner lot.

A cute cookie-cutter home on a corner lot.

A remarkable design - and not on a corner lot, near Broadway and Nanaimo.  But city hall took 18 months before granting permits.the independant builder

A remarkable design – and not on a corner lot, near Broadway and Nanaimo. But city hall took 18 months before granting permits.

 

Behind 4th in Grandview, this cutie remionds me of a treehouse

Behind 4th in Grandview, this cutie remionds me of a treehouse

while 3 doors down is this ultra-modern one.

while 3 doors down is this ultra-modern one.

taking advantage of a wide lot in Mount Pleasant

taking advantage of a wide lot in Mount Pleasant

Laneway house on a West side corner lot, masquerading as a full size home.

Laneway house on a West side corner lot, masquerading as a full size home.

 

Nice modern combo, near Trout Lake

Nice modern combo, near Trout Lake

Some lanes have kept their old-fashioned character

Some lanes have kept their old-fashioned character

The idea isn't new: here's my favourite laneway house ancestor, on the Windsor Street bikeway.

The idea isn’t new: here’s my favourite laneway house ancestor, on the Windsor Street bikeway.

This brand new country lane, behind 37th, hosts two laneway houses.

This brand new country lane, behind 37th, hosts two laneway houses.

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Written by enviropaul

July 15, 2013 at 9:42 am

4 Responses

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  1. […] much as laneway houses are a good way to increase density in heritage neighbourhoods, that’s not enough to accommodate […]

  2. Nice survey Paul.

    I appreciate the development of laneway houses as an incentive for retaining an older house at risk of demolition. However, laneway houses in conjunction with new-build houses, especially when the new-build required demolition of an existing house should not happen. Laneway houses should only be permitted as a reward for retention, not as a reward for demolition.

    Brent

    November 10, 2014 at 11:21 pm

  3. Hi we are looking lane house, can you please tell me where should I go. ….whom I contact… Can you please suggest right person… And contact number..

    Honey

    October 23, 2015 at 6:08 am


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