A Trip Down Canada’s Laneway Housing

 The urban laneway (what the realists among us like to call alleys) is experiencing a renaissance. As more and more urbanites living on single-family lots ditch their cars, the garages and driveways behind their houses seem less like conveniences and more like wasted opportunities. Enter the laneway house, which turns car shelter into people shelter (and rental income).

Vancouver is at the forefront of the laneway revolution. On June 28, 2009, as part of its EcoDensity initiative, Vancouver's city council passed a bylaw permitting the conversion of laneway garages into residential units. Under the bylaw, 70,000 properties became potential candidates for the new type of housing. Every month, Vancouver's permit department processes up to 50 applications for laneway housing.

These houses say a couple of things about how our values are changing. Firstly, the passage of the bylaw suggests that creating more housing without expanding outward is a priority for the city. This could also result from the fact that administering simple changes to single-family properties is simpler and less costly than administering the construction of a new multiple-unit apartment building, but my guess is that the bylaw is a response to a strong popular appetite for saving space and living sustainably.

Secondly, these houses are being built very close to their neighbours. They're practically duplex, except that some of the 'master' houses have windows facing the laneway (and the laneway houses, in turn, have windows facing the master house). No longer is having a big patch of grass and a fence between you and your neighbours seen as crucial. People are embracing proximity as they seek to transcend the alienation that urban life sometimes brings. I can imagine laneway houses becoming the destination of choice for boomerang adults exiled from their parental homes. Hey, you can just walk next door and maybe sneak a free meal every once in a while. And for laneway neighbours without a family connection, you get the unspoken neighbourly camaraderie that comes with sharing a duplex without the risks associated with thin walls (and creaky mattresses).

One negative externality (for you economics majors) that comes with the laneway house can be the ire of the neighbours. Let's face it, these houses change the way the neighbourhood looks and reduce its exclusivity, which is to say that they risk bringing down the sale prices of all nearby houses. In Vancouver, the Dunbar Residents' Association lamented the fact that laneway conversions occur without consulting neighbours first, and that some new additions are real monstrosities. The first complaint draws on the sound logic that anybody who might be negatively affected by a matter should be consulted. Formal consultation, even if done in good faith, could end up letting NIMBYism stall an initiative that benefits the city as a whole. As for the second complaint - as long as the houses meet city guidelines, the latter objection is just a matter of taste. And if the laneway houses attract more potential buyers seeking close-knit neighbourhoods, then everybody's property goes up in value.

Moreover, every laneway house that is rented out is one less apartment unit that might need to be built where Vancouver's heritage buildings currently stand. The bylaw won't solve the problem of underhousing by itself, but it is one of the most cost-effective ways, in terms of tax dollars spent, to increase the supply of housing.

The bylaw places some restrictions on the laneway houses. In order to avoid the possibility of irreparable damage to the urban landscape, all laneway houses in the city must not exceed 1.5 storeys in height and must have parking space for at least one car. Moreover, the houses cannot be sold separately from the rest of the property - they can only be used privately or rented out. This is in line with the city's goal of increasing the supply of affordable housing.

Now, let's take a look at these babies. Lanefab is an architecture firm that specialises in building - you guessed it - laneway houses. The company has been featured on CTV and CBC, and has won awards for its innovative work. It has succeeded in turning what could have been poor-cousin houses into structures that both complement their neighbours and stand on their own as welcome additions to the urban landscape.

photo: Courtesy of Lanefab - by Two Column Marketing

This house, at Slocan and 19th, really takes the laneway to heart. The outer wall seems to be an extension of the pavement, integrating the house with the street and by extension the rest of the neighbourhood. The bricks and wood add domestic warmth to a building that could otherwise look out of place in a residential area. I do feel a bit as though the laneway house is the main attraction, but let's be honest - would you rather live in the house on the left, or in the house on the right?

SMALLWORKS is another Vancouver firm taking part in the laneway boom. They can make just about any house flanked on all sides by garages look absolutely beautiful. Check out their photo gallery of lane houses here!

Vancouver, while arguably the most ardent proponent of this form of housing, is not the only Canadian city that's seeing laneways become living spaces. Toronto has started to see some laneway housing, although on a much more limited scale. It is not part of the city's growth plan, and for the time being any amendments to laneways will be examined by the city on a case-by-case basis, according to David Oikawa, the Manager of Community Planning for Toronto and East York.


Croft Street

photo: Courtesy of BlogTO

This house, designed by Kohn Shnier Architects won an honourable mention in the City of Toronto's 2007 Toronto Urban Design Awards for "elevat[ing] the vernacular architecture of sheds and garages into an elegant statement of new urban possibilities." One of this house's elegant statements is its carport. It subverts the notion that cars need to be sheltered in dedicated structures (garages) by making the carport a lacuna, an almost accidental consequence of the house's elevation. And rather than boldly proclaim its presence with a hip roof, the structure pays due respect to its neighbours by being flat-topped (and by not being ridiculously taller than the surrounding garages). There's little about the front of the house that even suggests that people live inside - no main-floor windows, no steps at the entrance, not even a doorframe! This house is a perfect little hideaway.

Gradient House

photo: (on Superkul) by Shai Gil

My eye was naturally drawn to the lush red and and green vegetation rather than to the structure, which brings industrial severity to the traditionally homey farmhouse shape. It's as though the house is there just to provide shape to the garden, rather than the garden embellishing the house. An interesting statement on the transitory nature of urban living (and possibly of life too): despite all the bells and whistles we add to our homes to try to distinguish ourselves, we really live in houses just so that we can shelter our bodies from the unforgiving elements. The use of cement board slabs on the front makes me think of a lonely clapboard cabin in the middle of a tornado. The warm lighting inside looks eerily out of place in the austere grey. However, the coldness of the home is balanced out by the foliage, which is so dense it seems to be closing in on the house (especially in the picture below).

Gradient House is one of a growing number of examples of converted laneway housing in Toronto. Before its rehabilitation, the house was partially burned-out and surrounded by weeds. Superkül Architects, inspired by the creative property conversions taking place in Tokyo (as a result of a very heated housing market), designed and put in place the entire property within the client's timeline of one year. Some would chalk the house's visual economy up to cutting corners. I chalk it up to the architects' artistic and design genius.

photo: (on Superkul) - by Shai Gil

I like laneway houses not only for their ability to moderate the housing market and to integrate into their neighbourhoods, but because more houses means more house porn to ogle.

Do you know where we can see more of these beauties in Canada? Please let us know!

Research and Written by Josh Patlik, Student of International Development & Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Posted In: Canada

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