Laneway homes, garden suites, and carriage houses sprouting up across Lower Mainland

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      Neighbourhood tensions over proposed laneway housing in the West End burst into the open at an August 28 public meeting with senior Vancouver planning staff at the West End Community Centre.

      Vancouver’s general manager of planning and development, Brian Jackson, told the crowd of about 200 that he recognized that many of them dislike the introduction of these homes as part of the new West End community plan. Then he tried to mollify some of the angriest people by saying what’s being proposed in the West End is not like many laneway houses in single-family zones.

      “It is, in fact, to help us renew the rental stock that we have here,” Jackson insisted. “Because without an incentive to assist us in promoting the preservation of rental, it’s going to be difficult for us to maintain the rental stock and the relatively affordable rents that are in the area. So we are looking at the laneway housing as part of that to address the anticipated rental housing [need] in the West End.”

      Judging by the catcalls from the audience, not everyone accepted this explanation.

      It’s the newest controversy over laneway housing, which has been generating enormous attention since city council approved these detached secondary dwellings in 2009.

      Vancouver’s deputy director of planning, Jane Pickering, told the Georgia Straight by phone that permits for 1,065 laneway homes have already been issued, which is far more than in any other municipality in the region.

      Given all the media coverage, it would be easy to conclude that Vancouver was the first city in the region to allow them. But according to Pickering, Maple Ridge was ahead of everyone else in allowing these structures.

      Pickering knows this because she was the director of planning in Maple Ridge when the decision was made by its council. “Vancouver was fast on our heels,” she acknowledged.

      Maple Ridge calls its detached infill homes “garden suites”, and they’re allowed up to 90 square metres or 10 percent of the lot size (whichever is less). Vancouver permits a maximum of 70 square metres on larger lots and 46.5 square metres on a typical lot.

      “In Maple Ridge, there are many properties that don’t have lanes, but they have very large properties with very wide frontage,” Pickering said. “So there was an accommodation made. If you could fit the home at the back of the property and still gain access from the front, particularly fire access, then you could build it. It was a bit of a different program, but the same kind of concept.”

      City changed rules around parking

      In Vancouver, city council adjusted laneway-housing regulations earlier this year to require parking spaces outside of the building. Pickering said that this came in response to complaints that people were turning indoor garages into additional living space and then leaving vehicles on the street.

      “We have also done some things to encourage single-storey laneway houses,” she added. “The regulations before were set up in such a way that they were encouraging a sort of storey and a half. We had a lot of feedback from the neighbourhoods that they felt that a storey and a half were too high. There were issues of shadowing and overlooking into their yards.”

      Vancouver architect Frits de Vries told the Straight by phone that he designed one laneway house with the parking spot on top of the structure. “It is because the lane sits at least a storey higher than the garden,” he said. “In that case, the car arrives at the level of the upper floor. We may be doing it again because one of our other clients is interested in that.”

      Last year, de Vries won the first Georgie Award—handed out for excellence in home-building—for the design of a laneway house. He pointed out that it’s much more economical to build a laneway house at the same time as a new house is being constructed because the cost of installing water and sewer services is spread over both dwellings.

      “It’s better to do it as a redevelopment,” he said.

      When asked if it was feasible to create laneway houses in the West End as a means of preserving affordable rental stock, de Vries said that this could be challenging, given the cost of construction. He pointed out that in other areas of the city, these units are often occupied by the property owner’s relatives.

      This is also true in the city of North Vancouver, according to Mayor Darrell Mussatto. He should know because he lives in a 93-square-metre laneway house beside a duplex occupied by his brother and his mother.

      “They call it Fonzie’s suite,” Mussatto quipped in a reference to the character who lived above a garage in the TV show Happy Days.

      Mussatto explained that there are two options for developing detached dwellings on single-family lots in his city.

      Single-storey homes up to 74 square metres require only a building permit from city staff.

      Applicants who want to add one-and-a-half-storey homes up to 93 square metres are required to talk to their neighbours and attend a public meeting at city hall, where council votes on the matter.

      “People tend to want the little-bit-bigger size,” Mussatto said.

      Regulations differ by municipality

      In a December 2012 discussion paper, the District of West Vancouver noted that in the distant past, a coach house was an extra building on a property for horse-drawn coaches, carriages, and other vehicles. Other coach houses were servants’ quarters.

      “Today, the term ‘coach house’ refers primarily to a smaller detached dwelling, which is typically a garage,” the paper states. “Even though coach houses are becoming more common in Metro Vancouver, there is still public misconception about what a ‘coach house’ is due to the common use of various terms to mean essentially the same thing.”

      It lists the rules for various municipalities across B.C. Coquitlam, for example, allows one-storey "carriage house" rental suites on the second storey on garages. Delta, Langley Township, and Richmond use the term coach house to describe the same thing. In all cases, the homes must be accessible from a lane and have their own parking spaces.

      The largest permitted size in Coquitlam is 50 square metres, whereas they max out at 42 square metres in Delta. In Langley Township, there are no maximums under the zoning bylaw, but density cannot exceed what’s allowed in the community or neighbourhood plan.

      Richmond permits coach houses up to 60 square metres in the Broadmoor, Burkeville, and Hamilton areas, as well as in areas zoned for infill residential and coach houses. The city requires that 75 percent of the floor area be above the garage except in Edgemere, where the requirement falls to 60 percent. Granny flats—described as self-contained detached housing units—with up to 70 square metres of living space are also permitted in the Edgemere neighbourhood in Richmond.

      Last month, West Vancouver council voted to allow coach houses, despite concerns expressed by veteran councillor Bill Soprovich.

      Over the phone, he told the Straight that he’s unhappy these dwellings can be approved by staff without going before council. He also claimed that there will be insufficient consultation with the affected neighbours.

      “It bothers me in the sense that council will have no say in the future,” he said. “Citizens will have little say in the future. It will be a planning initiative.”

      The District of West Vancouver discussion paper points out that 25 percent of West Vancouver residents were age 65 or older in 2011, compared to just 13 percent across the region.

      “The growing proportion of older residents in the community has significant implications for health and social services, recreation, transportation planning, and housing,” the paper states. “Access to well-located, low-maintenance, and adaptable/accessible housing that is convenient to community support networks is important to the overall well being and quality of life for many of these residents.”

      District of North Van and Burnaby may be next

      There are signs that the District of North Vancouver is also about to move forward on this issue.

      “Staff at North Vancouver District have researched coach houses and best practices, and will be presenting that information to district council in the near future,” communications and community-relations officer Jeanine Bratina told the Straight by phone. She wouldn’t provide any details beyond that.

      In Burnaby, the city’s social-sustainability strategy has identified considering the feasibility and advisability of allowing secondary suites and laneway housing as “priority actions” to facilitate housing affordability.

      If this is deemed appropriate, council would revise the Burnaby zoning bylaw to permit these land uses. Mayor Derek Corrigan, who chaired the steering committee, and Coun. Colleen Jordan, who is the liaison to the planning department, did not return messages from the Straight by deadline.

      Back in Vancouver, deputy director of planning Jane Pickering said that staff have been surprised by the distribution of laneway houses.

      “We thought there would be a concentration on one side of the city, and actually, there is not,” she said. “They are widely and fairly evenly dispersed across the whole city. It’s been pretty interesting.”

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @csmithstraight.




      Oct 16, 2013 at 1:14pm

      Why would you dislike a laneway/carriage/coach thingie in your neighbourhood? They are new, therefore built to code and not fire hazards; they allow families to stay together on same property, or rent out as income needs dictate; lawns are a hassle, and you only need as much lawn as is needed for occasional nude sunbathing and giving the dog a private place to drop a deuce.

      So, why not?

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      Oct 17, 2013 at 7:05am

      I'm all for tastefully done homes that blend with a neighbourhood, but mine is full of new laneways that are square-ish, concrete and wood blocks. The look is going to get dated pretty fast.

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      Oct 17, 2013 at 12:09pm

      "They are new, therefore built to code and not fire hazards; they allow families to stay together on same property, or rent out as income needs dictate; lawns are a hassle"

      They are new, these days meaning cheaply built by unskilled and even unlicensed sub contractors, in many, many cases.
      As Natty has said, they are characterless boxes, translation, cheap income properties that often fail inspections more than once before scraping by with the absolute minimums. Many sub contractors I know have no idea of the local building code and are forced to build the cheapest solutions, with drywall and a nice coat of paint to cover the poor framing up. Green space is not needed? This is BC, greenspace IS BC. Without a yard, kids end up wasting away on the couch with a vidiot games or getting into trouble because of the sheer lack of recreational facilities in neighborhoods these days.
      Note: there are quote a few fantastic contractors too, highly skilled and building great homes that last the test of time, you just rarely find them building these spec homes and laneways at low market prices people expect. There are many reasons that these expensive homes are worthy of the asking price. Everyone is a general contractor these days, whether with skills and proper licensing or not, inspectors never look for a sub contractor's license and even if they do, there is always one guy (rarely on site) who can produce one, unfortunately it isn't always the one building the new home.

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      Oct 17, 2013 at 1:14pm


      Thank you for replying, it is good to know what people don't like about these things, because I am thinking of building one - you know, as soon as I find that extra $200,000 in the cushions of my sofa -- and do not want to annoy my neighbours.

      Regarding greenspace, I grew up in the country. I do not consider 33' x 122' to be "greenspace." It is barely long enough to bowl a bocce ball - not at all suitable for teaching kids to catch a football, dribble a soccer ball, or ride our bikes. All of that groovy, not-videogame fun stuff had to be done in nearby parks (or, in the case of firearms, in expensive gun ranges).

      As for yucky looking and poorly built stuff, I have been to plenty of open houses and I have friends in the building trades and in real estate - I am not at all disagreeing with you about the potential for ill quality and ugliness.

      The ugliness is not a factor for me. Mrs. R U Kiddinme is not going to allow an ugly building (I have actually had to stop her from trying to disallow ugly paint on a neighbour's house, retrieving her impassioned protest letter from their doorstep).

      Nor, hopefully, is poor craftspersonship. Since I plan to put family, and maybe eventually myself, into said backyard box, it behooves me to make it well.

      Nonetheless, you make good points. It is always a matter of buyer beware.

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      Oct 17, 2013 at 7:45pm


      I am the first one to say 'build to human scale not corporation scale' at one time I thought I had coin the phrase! And so when I see these development pushed on us: 'the beach heaven, pristine life in the hearth of the city' ... only 380 units available... I think hummm 380 unit most of them inhabited by 2 people ... My population density within a bloc just increased by 600 people... that is likely more then the whole neighborhood of single dwelling houses... then I say ... NO NO NO. At the same time my mum is turning 85, yeah to allow her to keep her independence yet be close to me a laneway house make sense. As for the 'built cheap cheap' argument that is building code, it has nothing to do with lane way houses, but yeah building code needs an overall trust me, i know. the things land owners and contractors get away with is criminal, ... but eh the city seems to prefer collecting taxes then forcing bylaws to make neighborhood safe. Go figure, another limo Mr. R.?

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      Oct 19, 2013 at 12:10pm

      The Vancouver laneway houses are suppose to have "permeable" landscaping around the perimeter. However, what I have seen it that once the inspections have been completed, the owners bring in a cement truck and pave the whole thing. I also see multiple cars being parked in the alley making it difficult to drive through. The garages apparently turned into storage or living spaces.

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