Laneway houses prove smaller can be better

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      With a footprint measuring only 3.7 by 6.7 metres, the wood building with the huge windows overlooking the Fraser River is too small to fit the City's definition of a living space. But you don't really need much more, say Jake Fry and Aaron Rosensweet, who, through their company Smallworks, are trying to alter the way we think about housing by providing a commonsense solution to the Vancouver problems of high prices and tall buildings: laneway housing.

      Building-smart Fry and design-sensible Rosensweet explain that laneway housing is exactly as it sounds: a small home in the back yard or, rather, in the space typically occupied by a double garage, typically 60 to 70 square metres–the size of the average condo. Except that instead of a box in the sky, residents live at ground level and step out into green space.

      With unintentional irony, their workshop, located at 7520 Balaclava Street in the old Celtic Shipyards, isn't far from Deering Island's megahomes. Speaking of oversize houses in general, Fry says: "You'd expect our fellow citizens to act more responsibly. It's the last hurrah of the dinosaurs." It's also a comparatively modern trend. Not that long ago, Vancouver homes averaged less than 185 square metres. Check out any surviving postwar bungalow (if it hasn't been razed and replaced by a monolith).

      Fry says, "Our ideal scenario is going to Kerrisdale, Dunbar, or anywhere, and greening the existing house and building a little domicile at the back." The two bring out the plan of a laneway home they've designed to show how it works. The downstairs bedroom is 2.9 by 2.7 metres; it could also function as an office or den because the angled roof creates loft space accessed by a ship's ladder. Living, dining, and cooking happen in one room; the bathroom has a tub, albeit a small one. Around $140,000 for a nicely finished unit, they figure–about the price of the two high-end SUVs you could park in the same space. Photos (see ) show different designs using the same footprint and Vancouver's current maximum allowable height for a garage of 4.6 metres, a house featuring a shoji-screened room that doubles as summer dining area and winter garage, and a green-roofed workshop in Strathcona.

      Homes are partially prefabricated in Smallworks's waterside studio. Once concrete foundations and pad are in place, building takes about two days. Start to finish, they estimate, it takes about four months but with no construction clutter. Space-saving ideas include an "on demand" water heater inside the wall cavity, radiant in-floor heating so furniture can go right against the wall, and, as in their display model–for sale, by the way–a four-panel accordion glass door that visually and literally expands living space. They build "green" by using Forest Stewardship Council–certified, local, or wind-felled wood wherever possible; employing soy-based spray foam for insulation; recycling leftover timber for cabinetry; and, greenest of all, building small.

      We don't need as much space as we think we do. Fry and Rosensweet both have kids, and each family occupies, they estimate, 84 square metres. As Rosensweet–who grew up in a five-person household on Toronto Island that was about 56 square metres–points out, modern life revolves around the kitchen so you want a large one, but beyond that, all you need are "some private spaces and access to outside". Large homes, says Rosensweet, have spaces to read, spaces to play games; the owners of Smallworks prefer multifunctional areas. "What we don't need [in a house] is empty space," says Fry. "You need a modest place to live in, and then you need green."

      Smallworks has completed a dozen projects, custom-designing each structure for function and with aesthetics that reflect the main home or the garden around it. So far, they have built homes in Strathcona and East Vancouver (and studios in most other areas of the city). Everything is in flux with the City, they say, so right now they're building one project at a time. There can be a degree of NIMBY–ism, and unnecessary concern about parking. "If neighbourhoods become more affordable, you have a healthier neighbourhood," says Rosensweet, and, if increased density is inevitable, they believe laneway housing is a better solution than tearing down small homes and building condos.

      They also point out the social advantages. Retirees can build and live in the back yard, rent out their main house, and live on the income. Laneway homes can accommodate extended families or elderly parents, so that a son or daughter is close enough to keep an eye on them. Above all, the possibility of building a home in the back yard makes sense in Vancouver's costly property market, says Fry: "I think you'll see people in their 30s saying, 'I could buy with someone.'" Smallworks is currently working with Vancity, which has a Mixer Mortgage that lets first-time homebuyers co-own with family or friends.

      Laneways sprinkled with small affordable homes is an enticing idea. Fry envisages the quality of life common a few decades ago: back alleys turned into pedestrian corridors, stores accessible on foot. "That's what our take on densification would look like," he says. "What we're proposing reflects a very humane city."