Vancouver Modern Home Tour features a laneway house that's gone green

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      “You know modern when you see it—the glass, the straight lines,” says Ken Shallcross, vice-president of Modern Home Tours, on the phone from New York City. “The problem is you rarely get to do more than just catch a glimpse from the sidewalk.”

      For just shy of a decade, Shallcross and Modern Home Tours have given aficionados of midcentury modern, neomodern, and neofuturistic design a passport into private modern homes in eight U.S. and Canadian cities. “We’re able to showcase a little slice of art that people would never get to see unless they were invited over by the homeowners,” he says.

      Returning for its third year (and with a satellite tour in White Rock), the Vancouver Modern Home Tour will open five distinct properties to the public for a self-guided look. Alongside the West End condo, the Endowment Lands sprawler, and the North Van hillside home, one stop on the tour stands out as doubly modern: the Kerrisdale laneway home that combines modern design with modern land use.

      Named “Two Birds” after the sustainable and ethical clothing line founded by its owners, the 940-square-foot, two-bedroom bungalow at the back of a large West Side lot is the embodiment of Vancouver’s Greenest City initiative to increase density in neighbourhoods dominated by single-family homes.

      “Like a majority of our clients, this was a family situation,” says architect Bryn Davidson of Lanefab Design/Build, who created Two Birds. Lanefab completed Vancouver’s first on-site laneway home, the Mendoza lane house, in early 2010 and its Dumfries Street solar lane house was profiled in the New York Times. “The parents owned the main house on an oversized lot and so their kids were able to design a new building in the yard without having to pay for the land. For the price of a one-bedroom condo, they were able to have a home built directly to their needs.”

      Family situations like this allow for a more open concept, as privacy isn’t as much of an issue en famille as it is when constructing a laneway home for the rental market. A striking feature of the home is the outdoor patio that leads off the main living wing and garden entrance. Open to the yard and the main house, it’s the natural outdoor gathering point for both parts of the family.

      The L-shaped home is divided by an atrium entrance, with the master suite composing the shorter wing and the living space and second bedroom making up the longer. Foundations poured below grade and vaulted, saltbox-style ceilings maximize room heights, which are otherwise mandated by the City. Exposed reclaimed beams and horizontal windows running underneath the roofline add even more air and light. A modernist, cool palette of whites and neutral greys unifies the space, while wood-panel accents around window frames and bulkheads offer natural warmth. Pride of place goes to the live-edge dining table, cozied in on two sides by window-front banquette seating.

      The kitchen area of the laneway house.

      While not everyone has parental land rights to exploit, Davidson is nonetheless at the vanguard of a municipally sponsored initiative to fill in residential spaces with more living quarters. At least, in theory. As he explains over the phone, while the city is supportive of the intent of laneway housing and the mayor trumpets its benefits regularly in the media, the realities of permitting and licensing can be overwhelming.

      “In late 2014 we had seven projects in limbo awaiting licensing and we had to start laying off staff and looking at our finances,” Davidson remembers. Standard wait times of two to three months stretched out to four months and more, due, Davidson says, to staffing and other issues at the permit office. “It’s a chronic issue it [the city] still hasn’t really addressed. There have been some improvements on the barriers, but here we are, building to the highest Energuide ratings in the city, and we can’t get our permits.”

      In the end, Two Birds was completed on an eight-month timetable, incorporating elements of the German Passive House movement, into an energy-efficient design with thicker walls and triple-glazed windows that minimizes the need for central heating, instead relying on sunlight and the inhabitants’ body heat. Somewhat ironically, Two Birds still requires central heating. The physics is such that a passive home needs around 2,000 square feet of floor space to work properly—over double the maximum floor space allowed for a laneway home in Vancouver.

      Vancouver Modern Home Tour takes place on Saturday (September 19). See