A Building Boom: Small Homes Are Big in Vancouver B.C.

Canadian media has been abuzz in the last year over the proliferation of small houses in Vancouver, British Columbia’s single-family neighborhoods. But the story there has been about the innovation, sustainability, affordability, and predictability of the new homes, not about controversy about their impact on neighborhood character. In fact, in environment is so supportive that since 2009 when laneway housing (Vancouver’s term for cottage housing) was approved over 500 of them have been built in Vancouver. According to the Department of Planning and Development’s website, that’s about the same number of single-family homes and Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) have been built in Seattle combined. Vancouver, a city know for it’s density and tall buildings, is also growing strongly in it’s single-family neighborhoods.

Here’s the stats from a report from Vancouver’s CTV News:

The City of Vancouver has received 500 permit applications to build new laneway homes. Since the 2009 launch of Vancouver’s EcoDensity laneway housing initiative, hundreds of small homes have been built or are nearing completion. The permit department handles up to 50 new applications each month.

One of the big advantages of laneway housing in Vancouver is that the standards for how it has to be built and how the homes have to comply with zoning and building codes. One company, Smallworks, has developed a (pun alert!) cottage industry in building laneway houses that range from 500 to 2000 square feet. Far from being something that has limited interest in these houses, consistent and predictable standards for new housing in single-family have made them affordable and accessible.

Vancouver’s success in encouraging this form of housing doesn’t have anything to do with any specific formula for lot coverage like Floor Area Ratio, but rather the openness of the city to encourage infill development as a sustainability strategy.

From a recent article in the Vancouver Sun:

Livability and sustainability — not to mention affordability — are key words in the Vancouver region right now as cities struggle to balance a need to accommodate an estimated one million more residents over the next 25 years with a desire to preserve green space and limit urban sprawl.

That discussion has encouraged a range of new housing options to spring up in recent years in what had been predominantly single-family home neighbourhoods from the west side of Vancouver out to the Fraser Valley. Those options range from chic highrise towers and condominiums to the introduction of laneway and coach houses ranging in size from about 600 to 1,200 square feet.

It’s all about options, and Vancouver has opened more of them by encouraging more small houses to fill in empty spaces in single-family neighborhoods. The ease with which these are permitted means many of them use prefabricated components and can be built very quickly. This reduces expenses making the homes more affordable. And it certainly helps prices that there are more of them being made.

But there is another factor: people like the idea of having their own detached home, even if it is small. Increasing density and lowering price means more closeness too. One couple featured in a story about laneway housing said it this way:

It’s really a North American concept to have success tied to moving away or distancing yourself, so maybe we’re reinventing what it means to be successful, and that means keeping family close.

Vancouver’s enthusiasm for small homes as part of an effort to expand housing supply and choice should be a lesson to Seattle in the year ahead. Not only can we expand housing choice by finalizing small lot legislation, but by making some consistent and predicable rules we can make it more affordable and accessible too.

Video from Smallworks website.


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