Built in 1937, the home that Rick and Sharon McNeill live in is the same one he grew up in. The house was given to his parents that year as a wedding gift. As a kid, Rick could see the North Shore mountains from his back yard, a view that’s long been obscured by the Cambie Village area’s towering trees. The neighbourhood has been changed in other ways over the years too, most recently by the addition of so many laneway homes—just like the one going up behind the McNeills’ house, replacing the couple’s carport.
“They’re popping up everywhere,” Rick says in an interview over tea in his heritage home’s dining room. “I’m a firm believer in them. It’s the ideal thing for us to do.”
Built by Urban Lanehomes, the McNeills’ laneway house, distinct because it has two storeys, has one bedroom and two bathrooms and seems far more expansive than its 500 square feet, not including garage. The plan is for one of the couple’s sons, Tyler, to rent the home along with his girlfriend, Tabatha Golat. When the two first floated the idea by their future tenants, they admit the reception was lukewarm.
“Our son said, ‘Have you ever seen that TV show Everybody Loves Raymond?’ ” Rick recalls. “It was, ‘We love you, but maybe that’s a little too close.’ ”
But with housing prices in Vancouver being what they are, getting into the market on Vancouver’s West Side is out of reach for most young people. And after renting a small apartment downtown for about a year, the McNeills’ son started rethinking the laneway-home concept. “He thought maybe it would be a good idea, because they’d be able to live in the neighbourhood. They’d be close if we ever wanted to go away on a holiday.”
Sharon adds: “And if they ever have kids, we can swap houses.”
For his part, Tyler says the idea simply makes sense. “A few years ago my mom hurt her back gardening, and my dad hurt his back too, and it was a bit of a wake-up call for me,” he says in a phone interview. “They’re not in bad shape, but they’re getting older. There’s going to come a time when I’m going to need to look after them. This is a way to kill two birds with one stone. It seemed like a great fit.
“We don’t need a lot of space, but my girlfriend and I both really like hosting,” he adds. “Plus we’ll have an actual yard and we’ll have stairs, which make it feel like you have more space than you actually have.”
Once the family saw a recently finished laneway house by Urban Lanehomes on Oxford Street near the PNE, they were won over instantly. “I loved the big windows and all the light and the openness,” Rick says, with Sharon adding: “They take advantage of every possible inch of space, and it feels way bigger than it is.”
If a laneway home brings to mind cramped quarters, think again. Urban Lanehomes has found ways to make small pads feel palatial through innovative architectural and design details. Consider a few typical features. The homes incorporate numerous windows of all sizes, from long horizontal ones in the kitchen backsplash area to the pane that was custom-made for the McNeills, measuring just over two metres high and nearly two metres wide. There are high ceilings, with those over dining areas reaching well over five metres. With clean lines throughout, the homes may have acute angles in the ceiling that act as focal points. On the exterior, gutters are hidden, giving the houses a sleek appearance. The company combines function with style: you’ll see exposed and varnished structural Parallam beams, the “bones” of the homes becoming warm West Coast accents. And then there are those stairs; while many laneway homes are one-level boxes, more (like these ones) are multilevel.
“We want to show people what’s possible,” says Urban Lanehomes president Ranj Mahal during an interview at the Oxford Street home. “We want people to see that space used well is not small at all.”
Mahal explains that maximizing the use of space while making a laneway house comfortable requires certain criteria. “A dining area has to be able to fit a table that seats four people, not a bar,” he says. “A bedroom by my criteria has to fit a queen-size bed and two end tables. It has to have a closet and room for a small desk. A patio has to seat four people, have room for a barbecue, and still have space for standing. There needs to be a full-size washer and dryer. Two people should be able to fit side by side on the staircase. It’s like a puzzle, but for us it’s also a tangible art form.”
The balcony off the hallway to the bedroom, meanwhile, has a built-in heater and a mounted flat-screen TV. “We ensure the balcony can be used year-round to make the investment worthwhile,” Mahal says. “It becomes another room.”
The homes (which start at around $195,000 for a one-level and can go up to $300,000 and beyond) are also built with accessibility in mind, with such features as wide doorways and hallways, and staircase railings sturdy enough to support an electronic lift. And because homeowners can be involved in the process, other requests can be accommodated. Take the unit that Tyler McNeill (who’s six foot two) and his girlfriend (who’s nearly six feet fall) will be living in: it has an extra-high showerhead and an extra-long bathtub.
“Our goal is sustainability without compromise,” Mahal says. We appreciate the double-entendre of ‘living large’ in urban spaces.”