by Kamala Rao.
Cross-posted from Sightline Daily.
There’s an alley renaissance going on around the world. It
was born of a renewed love for urbanity that came along with the droves
of young, artistic types shunning the ‘burbs and repopulating North
America’s inner cities. They brought with them a desire to turn what
have traditionally been neglected and ugly inner-city dumping grounds
into vibrant, art-adorned, pedestrian-friendly public spaces.
Vancouver, B.C. — the city that has served as a North American icon for
creating liveable inner cities — is having its own “laneway” renaissance
(as alleys are known here). However, in Vancouver, the revival was
spawned by sky-high real estate prices, a lack of affordable housing,
and an ingenious plan to create “hidden density” in the city’s most
desirable single-family neighborhoods. Whereas some might see these
underutilized swaths of pavement as merely needing a little
beautification, the city saw it as an opportunity to provide
badly-needed rental units.
Before I get into all the reasons why I love this new housing
concept, first, a bit of an explanation. Laneway homes are basically
miniature versions of single-family homes — in the range of 500 to 1,000
square feet — that are built in what has traditionally been the garage
location of a single-family lot: in the backyard facing the lane. They
can’t be subdivided or sold separately from the main house on the lot. They can only be used for additional family space or rental income.
Their introduction into the frenetic Vancouver real estate scene was
part of a larger “Eco-Density Initiative” invented by former mayor Sam Sullivan and championed by current mayor
Gregor Robertson. The intention is to “help reduce [the city's] carbon
footprint, expand housing choices, and ensure Vancouver remains one of
the most liveable cities in the world.”
Here are four reasons I love them — and hope to see other cities throughout the world adopt them as a housing option:
1. They add “hidden density” to single-family neighborhoods.
The concept of “laneway housing” is actually quite ingenious. Think
about it: What other city has successfully added density to
long-established, single-family neighborhoods filled with $1
million-plus homes? The very thought of it conjures up images of staunch
NIMBYism. The city of Vancouver’s deft branding and effective outreach
smoothed the rollout of its laneway housing bylaw, keeping NIMBY
opposition to a minimum.
First of all, the city chose a good name. The term “eco-density”
reminds people of the significant environmental benefits of compact
communities, while neutralizing many of the concerns about noise,
traffic, and the erosion of the idealized, bucolic single-family
Secondly, the city knew that adding density the traditional way — by
“up-zoning” to allow for multi-family dwellings — was going to be a
non-starter in these tony neighborhoods. In light of the great condo
boom of the last two decades, the city saw the value in preserving the
remaining single-family housing stock. Because no matter how much you
recognize the environmental benefits of density, no one would ever want
to see these beautiful, traditional neighborhoods — with their lovingly
refurbished, turn-of-the-century homes and tree-lined streets — destroyed
to make room for more glass-and-concrete towers.
The goal was to densify single-family neighborhoods without affecting
their character; so the density needed to be relatively hidden, with
no impact on the curb appeal of these long-established and highly-sought-after neighborhoods. They had already legalized basement rental
suites — the most hidden form of increased density — but were bold and
committed enough to ask themselves if they had actually done all they
could to increase housing options in the least dense parts of the
Thus, laneway housing was born. The bylaw that gave birth to the
concept was passed in July 2009, and less than a year later, 100
of these pint-sized backyard homes had been permitted. Today, they are
becoming a relatively common sight in the back alleys of many Vancouver
2. They’re ultra-green.
Since World War II, our homes have gotten successively bigger,
consuming a large amount of resources to build, furnish, heat, and cool.
Of course, the smaller your home, the less energy and resources it
consumes. Laneway homes, by virtue of their size, are already nearly as
energy-efficient as condos, and at least one builder of laneway homes is
taking it a step further to see just how green these homes can be.
The firm builds exclusively with pre-fabricated, ultra-insulated
panels (R-40, for you green building geeks out there). They also use
small, energy-efficient appliances; triple-glazed windows; and optional
solar panels, wind turbines, and rainwater collection, in order to make
these green little houses even greener. The company is just now building
its first “net-zero” laneway home (meaning that it will collect all of
the energy it consumes via solar panels), which is loaded with the
latest in energy-efficient design features.
3. They provide a totally new housing option for those who can’t afford Vancouver’s sky-high home prices.
Most of the public conversation about laneway housing has centered on
sustainability and boosting the rental housing stock. But I wondered
what it was like to actually live in one of these backyard micro-homes.
After all, they really are a rare type of housing: a free-standing
structure the size and cost of a condo. So, I contacted Mathew Arthur,
who lives in the first laneway house built in Vancouver. At the time I
spoke with him, he’d been living there for over a year.
Mathew — a designer himself — appreciated the modern design of the tiny
home from the moment he saw it, and knew he had to live there. “In
Vancouver, if you’re a renter, you basically have two options: to live
in an old house that’s been cut up into apartments and probably not very
well kept up over the years, or to live in a condo, but this is
completely different. It’s the same price and modern design as a new
condo, but I have a whole house. There’s no one above or below me and I
have direct access to the outside.” As Mathew pointed out, laneway
houses allow people who can’t afford to buy (and there are many in
Vancouver, with its average detached home price now above $800,000) to
have their own little piece of land.
When I asked Mathew if it was challenging living in such a small
house — which he shares with his brother, and most nights, one or both of
their partners — he told me that it’s a difficult question to answer. He
doesn’t feel like the space, which is just over 700 square feet, is
small. “The house is so well-designed, it makes it easy to live in a
small space. Hopefully the creation of smaller housing like this will
help us as a society to re-focus on good design versus just creating
unnecessarily large, cookie cutter spaces.”
Good point: As our urban populations grow and densify, and urban land
becomes more scarce — and the price of all the resources it takes to build
and power a home continue to climb — laneway housing can indeed be a
model for living well within a constrained future.
4. They’re just downright adorable.
To make this point, I’ll finish here and let the photos do the explaining. Enjoy!
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Toilet-sharing app CLOO’ turns your home into a public bathroom
Is this the world’s greenest neighborhood?
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