Vancouver's first laneway house open for tours this weekend

Vancouver Sun  *  Sat May 8 2010  *  Page: A2  *  Section: Westcoast News  * Jeff Lee 

The first laneway house built in Vancouver under the city's EcoDensity initiative is being opened to the public this weekend.

With just a little pomp and circumstance, designer Bryn Davidson is showing off what he hopes will kick-start a trend toward friendly infill housing that will both help homeowners and create more affordable housing.

The object of his efforts is a small 710-square-foot house built at the back of Agnes and Manuel Mendoza's house at 2703 McGill on Vancouver's east side. "Hopefully we're going to get the occupancy permit this afternoon," said Davidson on Friday. His company, LaneFab Design, designed and built the little house. "We've finished the outside and now we just have some finishing touches to do inside."

The house, which the Mendozas are considering renting out for about $1,700 a month, is at the forefront of a concept the city approved last August to allow small laneside houses in residential neighbourhoods as part of its EcoDensity program. Under the initiative, homeowners in RS-1 and RS-5 residential zones can apply to build laneway houses in place of garages.

Laneway houses aren't new to Vancouver; the city allowed them to be built until about the 1920s, according to Davidson. They differ both from carriage houses, which are garages with suites over top -- not allowed in Vancouver -- and from the large infill housing the city began to permit as strata-title housing on some large lots.

Laneway homes are intended instead to be used either as small one-or two-bedroom rental units, or as family housing. They can't be subdivided from the main property. There are some limitations: lots have to be at least 33 feet wide and the properties can't be covered with large houses such as Vancouver Specials. The owners also have to provide at least one off-street parking space.

So far the city has issued about 65 permits. Davidson's creation, on which he broke ground in December, is the first one to be completed. There are more than a dozen in the city in the last stages of construction.

Interest in laneway housing has grown substantially in recent months. In an update to council in March, the city's planning department said it had issued 33 laneway housing permits since the rules were brought in. But as of the first week of May, a total of 65 permits had been issued.

About half of the homes are being built as part of a total site redevelopment. The rest are infill to existing housing. More than two-thirds of the houses are one-and-a-half storeys high, and the majority are one-bedroom units. The average size is about 550 square feet, the city report says.

Davidson has become a big fan of laneway housing, which he says is more affordable than the average condominium. Although he charged the Mendozas less, he said the average laneway house will cost about $190,000. "The value to the client is that it can be built for half the price of an equivalent condominium," he said. "It makes it much more affordable for everyone all around."

Davidson designed the little house to be as energy-efficient as possible. He used foot-thick pre-fabricated insulated panels and triple-glazed windows to reduce the need for electric heat, which in this case is provided through in-floor panels. "It is a very energy-efficient building," he said.

Davidson said he's already working on proposals from 12 other homeowners but believes the weekend's open house will help raise awareness. "People are very curious about these houses," he said. "We're hoping a lot of people show up for the tour."

The house is open to the public today and Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m.



• Photo: Glen Baglo, PNG / Designer Bryn Davidson stands in front of Vancouver's first laneway house at 2703 McGill.