The City of Vancouver recently approved its Ecodensity initiative, which includes a provision for laneway housing in single-family zones. This is a welcome and progressive move by the Council, since it adds density, and all its benefits, to the least-dense parts of the City. Metro Vancouver is expected to double in population before the middle of this century, and all those new people need to live somewhere. The general view is that laneway housing adds density without disrupting the granular building pattern that makes these neighbourhoods so desirable. The fact that the City was able to increase density in areas that have traditionally been reluctant to allow it is a sign of how appealing laneway housing is.
What Vancouver failed to do, however, is apply the obvious appeal of laneway housing to other appropriate parts of the City, in particular two-family zones. The thinking seems to be that two-family zones in the City already allow laneway houses in the form of infill housing, so including these zones in the Ecodensity initiative was unnecessary:
Current City regulations already allow one type of laneway housing. These are zones in which lane houses are placed over garages, in order to provide the required parking. They are generally on larger lots (50 ft or more) in areas zoned to have duplexes, conversions, and other similar development in addition to laneway housing. Although the main house is often retained, both the main house and the laneway house are part of a site redevelopment by small scale developers, with units in both buildings sold through strata titling. This zoning is very suitable for, and successful in, some parts of the city and could possibly be expanded to other locations. Ecodensity Initial Actions (p 18)
The reality however is that infill laneway houses are nearly impossible to build in these two-family zones because of an overly-restrictive set of design guidelines. In Vancouver, many parts of the City have both a set of zoning and development bylaws, which are legal documents passed by Council that determine what can be built where, as well as policies and guidelines, which are less rigorously written and enforced, but which have significant influence on the outcome of development proposals in the City.
In most two-family zones in Vancouver, there is an infill design guideline on the books that limits what can be built. The stated objective of infill is "to retain existing buildings by allowing the construction of a second residential building on appropriate sites" (p 11). The restrictions provided in the design guideline however make laneway infill nearly impossible. These restrictions include:
- Separation between existing and infill building of 4.9m (16 ft)
- A rear yard area of 195 m2 (2100 sq ft)
- Infill building maximum height of 7.7m (25 ft)
- Rear yard site coverage of less than 35%
- For mid-block infill, a side yard adjacent to the existing building of 4.9m (16 ft)
The first four restrictions make laneway infill doable on many lots, provided the existing house is relatively small and forward in the lot. However the last provision, the side yard setback, effectively kills laneway infill as a popular option. The reason is that most Vancouver lots are either 33 feet or 50 feet wide, while houses are rarely less than 25 feet wide, and are usually placed near the centre line of the lot. For a 33 foot lot, that typically leaves 8 feet of side yard, divided between two sides, while a 50 foot lot has 25 feet of remaining side yard. So 50 foot lots are a rare possibility, provided the original owner built a narrow building and located it off to one side, but 33 foot lots are out of the question.
In other words, the objective of the infill design guideline is supposed to encourage the retention of existing buildings, but the guideline's own side yard setback makes this nearly impossible. In practice, this means that the vast majority of developers of these lots demolish the existing building and construct a new duplex. (Many of these new duplexes look like character buildings, but in fact are built slab-on-grade, i.e. without basements, and without attics, much like the cheap Vancouver Specials that preceded them). This is the first irony.
The second irony is that many of the two-family zones in the City are meant to be heritage-friendly zones, which promote the preservation of character and heritage houses. Since it is largely impossible to build infill, and very costly to renovate or expand an older building, most developers will demolish the existing house, and then design the new duplex in a faux heritage style in order to get a density bonus that allows for greater floorspace. Result: character is being replaced with faux character.
The final irony is that these new duplexes are then required to have a two-car garage on the lane, a parking requirement that is meant to reduce crowding on the street. (Never mind that many duplex owners park on the street anyway, and use their garage for storage.) This required garage ends up being about the same size as the infill laneway house that the design guidelines originally prevented.
The question, then, is what is the point of these design guidelines that prevent infill laneway houses in two-family zones?
Perhaps it's because the municipal infrastructure cannot support the added density? Not true: the allowed duplexes add the same load to the infrastructure as the disallowed infill. And anyway, the numbers for family sizes and residents per building have been falling in Vancouver for decades.
Perhaps it's a matter of safety, i.e. the 16 foot side yard setback is the distance required to get emergency fire and medical services to the infill unit to the back of the lot? Again, not true: the BC Building Code only requires 3 feet for emergency access, which is the setback required for laneway housing in the new ecodensity initiative, and anyway, the lot can also be accessed from the lane.
No, the reason for the 16 foot side yard setback is that whoever wrote the guideline decided that it looked nice. To make that clear, they included this picture in the guideline:
At the time of writing, the City felt that all of the dwellings should be visible from the street. Notice, too, that the laneway house matches the main house to a large extent in terms of style. There is an idea here about the character of the streetscape and the granularity of building pattern relative to open spaces. A couple of questions come up immediately, however.
The first question is: why does this idea of streetscape trump all of the benefits of sustainable urban growth identified in Ecodensity? Laneway housing has proven to be the most visible and popular aspect of the Ecodensity initiative, with very little concern shown for the fact that these small new laneway houses will be hidden behind the existing homes. The answer must be that when the guidelines were written, the sustainable nature of laneway housing was not well-recognized; in other words, the design guideline is obsolete in today's thinking.
The second, and to my view larger and more interesting question, is: why are the City's planners trying to design houses? This is not their job. There is a point where design guidelines cross the line from being general regulations concerning safety and massing of buildings, and into the territory of individual building design. The former is a fair matter of concern for City planners, but the latter is a matter for architects, house designers, developers, owners and their neighbours.
Here and elsewhere, the City of Vancouver has attempted to quantify certain characteristics of older homes in the City, and has developed a set of incentives to encourage developers to build new buildings similar to those old forms. This is a large topic and worthy of a blog post of its own, but for now I will say that I am not alone in feeling that this encouragement of faux heritage new construction is turning the low-density parts of Vancouver into a theme park of kitsch architecture.
It is especially confounding when a kitsch design idea such as the side yard setback for laneway infill ends up encouraging the demolition of the very character homes that the new kitsch houses are meant to emulate. Yet this is what is happening throughout two-family zones.
The City Council showed admirable insight and gumption when it recently passed the Ecodensity initiative. That initiative effectively fast-tracked a slow and tedious neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood revision of zoning bylaws in order to allow small laneway houses in single family homes. Some zones, including Cedar Cottage, have already jettisoned the restrictive design guidelines that prevented laneway infill housing, while other two-family zones, such as Mount Pleasant, are attempting to do it one by one, as part of the regular neighbourhood rewriting process. The City should now show the same pluck and fast-track laneway infill housing for two-family zones.