Since the very beginning of the Laneway House in the Vancouver real estate market in 2009, this new thing has shown its vitality to the world. In the past ten years, the laneway houses have come along in support, opposition, and suspicion. Up to now, nearly 4,000 sets of LWHs have been built. How’s the thing going on? Let the data speak.
• 90% of LWHs are built in conjunction with a new house
• 45% of all new houses are built with an LWH
• Only 10% of LWHs are single storey
• 60% of recent LWHs have 1 parking space for the site; 40% provide more than 1 space
• 500+ permits for LWHs were issued in each of 2016 and 2017
Cost-Effectiveness – The construction industry has recognized that the most affordable way to build an LWH is in conjunction with a new house. The efficiencies for construction and service connections mean that LWHs built this way can cost $100k less than an LWH built with an existing house. The fact that 45% of all new houses come with an LWH indicates that there is a good financial case for building a laneway home. A 640 sq.ft. LWH built in conjunction with a new house at a cost of $200k can be rented at about $1,700 to $1,800 per month (or more in some neighbourhoods). If the $200k construction cost was borrowed, the entire loan could be repaid in less than 15 years at current mortgage rates. The Laneway House Program provides sufficient incentives to encourage the construction of secondary rental housing on private land.
Height – When the LWH Program was introduced 10 years ago the City took a cautious approach to the size of lane homes so that they would reflect the scale and height of garages. In response to resident concerns, the LWH Program and permit process were developed to carefully manage the implementation and mitigate potential impacts of LWHs on adjacent properties. The design guidelines stipulate that the second storey of laneway homes should have a half storey expression to reduce bulk, which means that second floors are designed to be contained within the roof. This scale minimizing approach was successful in helping to manage the original concerns about the impacts of the LWH Program. This approach has, however, had some livability and cost implications. Height restrictions are impacting livability and accessibility in LWHs. Rooms on the second floor often have low ceilings and are awkwardly configured. Common workarounds for the height restrictions include sinking the first level into the ground so that the floor to floor height, especially for the second floor, is not compromised. This often means that the LWH includes a step down to the entry door. In response to the general acceptance of the LWH Program and expanded opportunities for larger character infill housing on RS zoned lots across the city, it is time to loosen the LWH height limitations.
Livability – Many LWHs are also being built with multiple small bedrooms that raise concerns regarding livability and do not reflect the types of unit configurations intended by the Program. Envisioned as a way to add “gentle” density and more housing choice in neighbourhoods, smaller LWHs on standard size lots (33 ft. x 122ft.) were intended to provide studios and one-bedroom units. Larger LWHs on bigger lots were intended to provide up to two-bedroom units. The livability guidelines have not been effectively enforced and the quality of livability in some LWHs has declined considerably. Small LWHs that are built with multiple bedrooms and no shared living space have become increasingly common in Vancouver. New regulations are needed to ensure livable design for LWHs.
Sum – The topic of the laneway house is, in the end, a topic of the living environment, the relationship between man and nature, society and people. From the very beginning, it was doomed to bear the weight and path of its twists and turns.