Correction appended May 22, 2009
When former Vancouver B.C. mayor Sam Sullivan introduced the city’s groundbreaking Eco-Density initiative in 2006, one of the key goals was to increase the amount of affordable infill housing. Several years later, the Vancouver city council has followed up on that promise—by approving the use of “laneway housing” in the city’s single-family home neighborhoods.
Smallworks, a design-build company, has developed a “laneway house” prototype that it exhibited at the BC Home Show in February.
Also known as accessory dwelling units, laneway housing is currently permitted in only a few parts of the city. The new policy enables the construction of stand-alone cottages on back alley driveways of about 70,000 existing homes, a huge potential increase in Vancouver’s housing stock.
To maintain affordability, the new housing type will be limited to rental use—no for-sale units will be allowed. The design parameters are not so clear-cut. “The proposition is that the footprint of a laneway house will replace the footprint of a two car garage,” says Michael Geller, a Vancouver architect and developer who aims to fill the new niche with prefabricated construction. “What is not yet fixed is the maximum size, height, and whether a parking space will be required.”
As city planners draft laneway housing amendments to the current zoning regulations, Jake Fry, principal owner of Smallworks, a local design-build company, has already developed a possible prototype. His 624-square-foot, one-and-a-half-story Laneway Loft House features large windows and backyard views, as well as sustainable building materials such as bamboo flooring, structural insulated wall panels, and recycled shingling. It also has an eco-roof. The larger design challenge, Fry says, involves building on a narrow driveway without casting shadows on back yard vegetable gardens or providing sightlines into adjacent properties.
Since the Vancouver initiative was approved last October, the nearby cities of Maple Ridge and Nanaimo have also started revising zoning bylaws to allow laneway housing; the suburbs of North and West Vancouver will likely follow suit.
For several decades now, Vancouver has been a leader in high-density urban planning circles. As policy makers expand their attention from the inner city to single-family home and suburban neighborhoods, new questions are surfacing about how to densify gracefully. As Geller notes in the case of laneway housing: “The key design feature is accommodating the garbage cans.”
Correction: In October 2008, the City of Vancouver approved a plan to allow laneway housing in the city's single-family-home neighborhoods. As part of the process, city council directed staff to draft specific zoning amendments for laneway housing, which will be considered during public hearings July 2009. The original article mistakenly stated the laneway policy would take effect in July 2009.