Frances Bula header image 2

Backyard cottages, coach houses, laneway houses: They’re a trend

October 31st, 2010 · 20 Comments

As council comes up to a vote on where to go with laneway houses this Thursday, my look here at their popularity in Vancouver and elsewhere.

There are many issues I didn’t address in this story that I have elsewhere (complaints about the sizes of some of the larger ones, the outsize city fees that are essentially pushing people into building bigger because of the investment they have to make and more) and some issues I didn’t address that should be addressed sometime, somewhere.

As one reader wrote in an email, because all municipalities only allow these small houses to be rented rather than strata-titled and purchased, the laneway-house phenomenon doesn’t really allow first-time buyers to use them to get a foothold in the city.

The likely effect, my reader said, will be to make the cost of a single-family lot even more expensive, since prices will rise to account for the fact that a lot may now have three separate residences on it.

It’s difficult to believe it won’t have an effect on prices since everyone in Vancouver who looks at real estate for a second soon comes to realize that a house with a basement suite sells for more than the identical house next door without a suite.

However, for a lot of homeowners, the laneway houses are proving to be popular — not just in Vancouver, which is just getting started, but in Surrey, where there are already nearly 700 “coach houses” — because it does give some very attractive flexilibility.

Several close-to-retirement couples or singles I know are considering building them to live in, while they rent out their main house and use the proceeds to subsidize their travels or other retirement activities.

But, as Lance Berelowitz pointed out in my story (and Tsur Somerville from UBC did in a conversation), we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this does anything to create a large stock of affordable housing. It’s the Prius of housing solutions — nice and filled with good intentions, but very limited in what it can accomplish.

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  • Lewis N. Villegas

    “… allows small houses to be built behind any single-family house in the city that has a lot wider than 33 feet…”

    Frances Bula

    I have a love-hate relationship with so-called laneway houses. My partner for FormShift capably demonstrated another alternative that would—over the course of time—turn lanes into neighbourhood streets. Theat’s an alternative I can back without qualification.

    However, in Montreal, we can find both. First, we can find former lanes that are today neighbourhood streets fronted by homes on either side. And, we can find lanes with small houses fronting.

    I also witnessed first hand in Islington, on the perimeter of London, England, the emergence of lane way housing as a way of intensifying a long-standing neighbourhood.

    Of course, the point to underscore is that both in Montreal and Islington the laneway houses were very much the exception rather than the rule. This building type is not going to be the main source of intensification of our neighbourhoods going forward.

    And the reason is obvious: decency. How far away is not far away enough to front a neighbour?

    In Islington that dimension is 70-feet. In Vancouver platting, it is between 100 and 120 feet.

    Both dimensions are very much truncated on projects built along W7th Avenue between Cambie and Granville. New row house development along Granville and Oak also break this minimum for separation. In Surrey, of course, we can come up with any number of high density projects where neighbours front each other across distances that can only be term “indecent”.

    So, yes, lane way housing where it is a “good” fit, Frances. But, no laneway housing where it violates easily established norms for human decency.

  • Kirk

    From the comments on the G&M page, I don’t think the rest of Canada realizes that the$200k price is just the cost of construction. I can see it’s confusing because of the comparisons given to condos and larger SFHs. Depending on location, the land value would add another $400k to the price.

  • Lane way housing, coach houses, liveable barns . . . they were grandfathered all over the place before the planning dept began to eat off gold plates . . .

    How long before we have prayer meetings for Brenda?

  • Bill McCreery

    “….we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this does anything to create a large stock of affordable housing.”

    Lance is right. Laneway densification is not going to provide affordable housing any more than ridiculously over densified, over height spot rezoned high rises will in Vancouver. It is naive to think that building more supply in the proportions possible will reduce prices in a city like Vancouver. On the other hand the more we become Manhattan or Hong Kong, & our quality of life diminishes, that will reduce housing prices. I suspect this is not an alternative many Vancouverites would chose.

    Another myth which also needs to be popped is that, again, building over densified, over height spot rezoned high rises in downtown Vancouver ad agnozium will allow people to live closer to where they work. Downtown Vancouver only needs so many workers who do the waiter, clerical, etc. jobs. A lot of Downtown Vancouver jobs are taken by people with families &/or who want a less urban lifestyle, or maybe just a bit of terra ferma in a backyard.

    Once these myths are dispensed with perhaps we can begin some real conversations about the ‘why’ & ‘what’ of the livable, sustainable city.

  • rmac

    I live on the westside and have a laneway house going in just up the way – I don’t like it because of its height but will live with it. The problem I have is with the zoning that allows a lot to be sub-divided and sold if there is some purported heritage value to the original house. A case in point is the north-east corner of 8th and Macdonald – a derilict house (grow-op) became a heritage house and the small lot is now zoned for five units. The old house to be moved to the front east corner of the lot and turned into two units, a new duplex will be built as well as an infill house and five parking spaces. This developement is completely out of character for the neighbourhood and will be the “thin edge of the wedge” for future developments. BTW, I suspect none of the five units will be affordable. Another example of heritage trumping neighbourhood space is the house built at Arbutus and (I think) 18th – the Spanish style house became “heritage” and the lot was sold off – there is barely 10 feet between the houses and the new build’s asking price (on a 50′ x 56′ lot) was $2.1M.

  • Frances Bula

    @rmac. The new laneway houses that are going up can NOT be sold off. That ability to sub-divide the lot and build houses on the different pieces because of some heritage factor only applies to a certain small portion of houses in Vancouver. (And that provision has been in place for several years.) It does not apply to the recent change a year ago that allows them on single-family lots throughout the city.

  • Very interesting article – thanks, Frances.

    If you’re interested, check out the Hoodsurf series on laneway houses. Lots of pictures of LWHs in practice from around the city:

  • leonore

    I am a renter in West Point Grey and I think it will be great to get some more fammily/student friendly rental units in the area.

  • Judy

    If you want to see large lanehouses on 33 foot lots, go and look at the corner of West 11th Ave and Blanca near UBC in Vancouver. The city told us that laneway housing would be the size of a garage. Where are there garages this size?

  • Thanks Hoodsurf…the images are worth looking at.

    I am someone who wants to see the Laneway Housing initiative succeed, and eventually lead to homes for sale on subdivided lots, (a great way to add density while maintaining a single family neighbourhood character, and smaller, more affordable housing in established neighbourhoods).

    At the same time, I agree that some of the 1 1/2 storey units feel too big for their surroundings.

    I would therefore suggest that during the next stage of this trial program, the city encourage and allow a limited number of single level units to be built with alternative footprints…these should include units that extend further into the rear yard.

    I believe that a 12 foot wide, by 36 foot deep single level unit could fit quite well on a 33 by 120 foot lot, and also allow two side by side parking spaces under a carport.

    It will be a shame if this cannot be tested in Vancouver during the trial program.

  • DWei

    Three lane way houses (in a row) are under construction at the west end of the 4600 block W 11th, with another two near the east end. The three at the west end are a FULL TWO STOREYS and over 18 feet in height (taller than our home across the lane). The new LWHs are behind new monster, developer homes that are now permitted under the new relaxed densities for 33-foot lots.

    So much for our privacy. We now have an 18-foot wall of LWHs and three even taller main residences across the lane from our house.

    And UBC students can only dream about renting one of these lane way houses unless you have plans of paying off your student loans in 2210.

    Parking for residents in the homes? The required parking spot is so small that our 1985 Honda Civic would have difficulty squeezing into the space …oh and I’d need to be on a starvation diet should I want to exit our vehicle.

    I have lived on this block for 49 years. I’m not sure if I’ll celebrating 50 years.

  • Tessa

    @Lewis. I certainly don’t have a problem with laneway houses fronting one another, and I doubt most people who would live in them do either. After all, if you want to talk about privacy invasion, look at the downtown condos where people can look right out their window into the windows of the neighbouring building with nothing in the way, despite the greater distance.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    I agree about the towers, Tessa (12).

    The “decency index” measuring how close is too close to build a neighbouring structure should be calibrated separately for each building type.

    Putting towers 7o feet apart is not the same as putting 4 storey houses 70 feet apart.

    I am interested in Michael’s 36 foot deep unit on a 122 foot lot (post 10).

    I would site it 8 feet back from the lane, to grant a total of 8+20+8=36-feet separation from its lane way neighbour across the lane.

    36 feet flies under my “decency index”, but let’s push on.

    Assuming the lot has a 25 foot front yard set back, and a 50 foot house (it could be 40 feet deep), how deep is the rear garden separating the house from the lane way house?


    So, either the rear garden is 3 feet. Or we build the lane way house 20 feet away from its neighbour across the lane to achieve an 11-foot deep garden. Or we build the lane way house back-to-back with the original and put the garden between the structure and the lane.

    I don’t like ANY of these alternatives.

    “Lance is right. Laneway densification is not going to provide affordable housing any more than ridiculously over densified, over height spot rezoned high rises will in Vancouver. It is naive to think that building more supply in the [highest] proportions possible will reduce prices in a city like Vancouver.”

    Bill McCreery 4

    I believe this discussion at its root level is about how we will achieve intensification in our city.

    (a) Manhattan in 2006 is reported as having a population density of 70,951 people per square mile. That is 13,312 people per quartier.

    (b) Our FormShift entries netted a maximum gross density of 65 units per acre, 8,000 units or 16,000 people per quartier

    (c) 20 storey towers can achieve densities of 100+ units per acre, 12,000 units or 24,000 people per quartier.

    (d) Vancouver’s 2006 density is 13,818 people per square mile, or 2,592 people per quartier.

    The question that needs to be answered is how many people do we want to house per area? Not on a lot-by-lot basis, or a project-by-project basis, but on a quartier or neighbourhood basis?

    The concrete reality about our city is that we don’t need to build towers to achieve the intensification needed to meet projections for 2040 and beyond.

    A concrete reality which we still don’t understand is that if we allow the towers to break out of the downtown peninsula we will put in peril the character of our neighbourhoods and the resulting quality of our streets and urban spaces.

    It matters a great deal to the kind of city that we will build what building type we decide to use for the next increment of intensification.

    Laneway houses are like so many angels dancing on the head of a pin.

  • MB

    The laneway housing policy has so far left out one huge component — the lane! Eventually, some lanes will become narrow residential streets, and a push to move their character from the utilitarian garbage pick-up funtion will become important to many voters.

    Perhaps how lanes are treated should be addressed now.

    Regarding Lewis’s Decency Index, part of the equation should include the architectural character and the treatment of small outdoor spaces.

    It may be impossible to address this through policy, other than to host an annual laneway housing design award program. It is mostly about the quality of the work of architects and builders, and of the quality of taste possessed by the clients they accept. Some laneway houses will be delightful. Others will become derided mini Vancouver Specials.

    A friend once gave us a slide show of a recent trip to Japan. Their Osaka hotel room was tiny, but it had sliding floor-to-ceiling glass doors occupying a full wall that looked out into a continuous four-foot wide space. That’s equivalent to our current sideyard setbacks on standard lots. But for all intents and purposes through the device of the transparent and moveable glass wall, the outdoor space was included visually as interior space, and it afforded a major psychological expansion of the room.

    Further, the ground plane of that narrow outdoor space consisted of a fairly deep koi pond filled with colourful fish that responded quickly to anuone who opened the sliding doors, enlivening the space. The surface of the pond reflected the light from the sky into the room. The very tall back wall was solid with the texture and colour of vines and stone cladding.

    It was a Zen place.

    Just because spaces are limited doesn’t mean they can’t be invigorating, or should be subjected to formulaic responses regarding privacy.

    I am reminded of Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows”. If the Inuit have 1,100 names for the different types of snow, then the Japanese have as many for the different types of light, and over the centuries have become masters of creating delightful places from the tiny spaces between buildings.

  • Bill McCreery

    @ lewis 13.
    “I don’t like ANY of these alternatives.”

    Agreed. A lot more work & thinking needs doing on LWHs to really get a good neighbour fit & make them livable.

    To be clear, my comment above is focused on the “affordable” bit. LWHs are not cheap. & while they do help densify, they are not going to reduce rents due to an abundance of supply either. I can support good fit, gentler densification of this sort as well as other ground oriented housing types. &, as in past exchanges, Lewis we agree Council does not have to go to the excesses it’s currently allowing to achieve sustainable, transit oriented communities. This is a serious error on their part.

  • Lewis N. Villegas


  • Lewis N. Villegas

    “Just because spaces are limited doesn’t mean they can’t be invigorating, or should be subjected to formulaic responses regarding privacy.”

    MB 16

    MB your post requires more than a 3-letter affirmation. Although I agree that prescriptive coding takes away a modicum of creative possibility, let me remind you what else it does. It provides a level of certainty to everyone in the neighbourhood that some unfortunate result is not going to turn up in response to that other driving force in the market place: making a fast buck.

    Even the Zen pond, if it had a window from a facing unit say 40 feet away—like some units I have been in in Metro Vancouver—would be much diminished.

    We can make do seeing our neighbour’s “paños menores” airing in the laundry hanging in the air to dry. It’s quite another thing to have to put up with seeing them prancing around in them.

    We can do intensification without that.

  • MB

    And some would say Zen is a state of mind.

  • Chris

    I have to say that this seems to be a great way to supplement housing in Vancouver as long as it’s done properly and in moderation. Not going to be totally surprised when this turns into a total nightmare though.

  • There are ways to design laneway houses so that they are both contemporary and more respectful of privacy. Take a look at this design from :

    The laneway house has been designed in such a way that the windows and doors are protected by angled roof overhangs, improving neighbours’ privacy.