November 10, 2015

Michael Mortensen: Do we need a New Vancouver Special? – The Interview

Michael Mortensen has been advocating for a New Vancouver Special – “a type of ubiquitous infill housing that addresses affordability, the high cost and limited supply of land, and the scarcity of ground-oriented housing typically favoured by families.”  We posted his analysis here.



CBC Radio picked it up – and called Michael in London for an interview with “On the Coast:”


Van Special 2

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  1. I’m proud to say that 2 years ago I completed a small infill development in West Vancouver somewhat similar in concept to what Michael is proposing.
    It replaces a single family house with 3 units in a duplex and coach house form. The duplex has an assymetrical design to appear like one large house from the street. I carried out my project on 3 contiguous lots. The FSR was approx 0.6 + basements.
    While I would not call this a new Vancouver Special, like Michael’s concept, I do see it as a model for sensitive infill around the region. More details can be found at http://www.hollyburnmewshomes. com. I would love to find other Metro locations where I could replicate it!

    1. Michael, I am unclear by your description: “It replaces a single family house with 3 units in a duplex and coach house form.” I had a look at the Hollyburn Mews website, and it looks like a total of 9 units – three duplexes and three coach-houses. Is that correct?

  2. Yes, that is good, but doesn’t look much denser that what we can do right now in Vancouver on a 33ft lot.
    A similar project has recently sold in Killarney: .
    It consists of 8 detached house on a 100×130 feet lot, with 8 parkings. Notice the front set back has been reduced to its minimum (to allow for stair, and light well for the basements)..
    (also, for some strange reasons, the home had no full basement, what is a waste of space, and I suppose is the result of misguided policy on max fsr)

    The location right on the 41st and Killarney park (200m of future B-line stop) , should have granted a mid-rise building (the park is their back yard)

    That said, I like the fact that there is no “back” unit and it is still a step in t is a step in the right direction
    the Michael Mortensen proposal infers duplex buildings with ” back unit” with the “back door” entrance syndrom (and “front unit have no “backyard’ ) I think that is supposed to stay a niche market,
    * As mentioned, by David elsewhere front yards are a waste of space, and should be reduced as much as possible.
    *Also, it should be a no brainer that any house should be built on a full height basement (with proper acoustic insulation from main floor and not fully underground to allow natural lighting, because we all know it will end-up to be rented out)
    At the end we would like every “main unit” to be easily identified from the street (“pride of ownership”),
    So may be we could prefer an arrangement such as below, with “half basement” above ground and steepenough roof pitch to provide extra bedroom while keeping the house still relatively “low profile”:
    That is ~11,000sqf on a 8,000sqf lot: 4 “main house” of 1800 sq (+300sqfeet at 6ft+ in the attic), all build on a basement able to accomodate an extra unit + 2 laneway house, and another decent sized house at ~1100 sqt. (parking is keep outside for the 4 main house: the other Back yard house can have a “convertible” parking to suit the Vancouver Bylaw)
    Main houses are intertwined (width vary from 12 to 18 feet), allowing a smooth transition from legacy setback to the “new set back” (at the benefit of a bigger back yard, light coming on 3 side of each house, and area with large room.

    1. One reason for the success of the Vancouver Special was low cost slab construction. Once you start digging basements you also have to dig deep drainage channels, deep utility lines and build waterproof foundation walls. It adds considerable time, complexity and cost to the project. If you’re trying to maximize affordability basements may not be worth it.

    2. Yes, however, there is a common false premise here that the affordability issue is due to construction cost and associated red tape (this is an urban legend spread obviously by developers):
      time for a housing price fundamental 101
      houses price are determined by the yield they can generate:
      That is how much people are willing to rent them not by how much it costs to build them:
      Today, an East van 33×122 lot can yield $60,000/year (~$2500/m for the main house, $1000 for the basement, $1500 for the laneway house).
      Taking the number of Michael the construction cost could be of $850,000, financing the whole, will cost you ~$40,000/year. (you can argue about the maintenance cost, house depreciation…so for the sake of simplicity, it is fair to consider ~$40,000 year for the house’s life).
      the return above could be very attractive, so come in the land price:
      How much people are willing to pay the land to make the investment still attractive?
      In those days of very volatile stock market, and very low yield for bonds: a lot!
      Just holding the land with 0% yield can still be a good proposition. And in Vancouver where the city policy almost grant you an appreciation of the land: just holding it with a negative yield can be considered as a fairly low risk speculative bet.
      The carrying cost of paying a lot $1,000,000 is ~$30,000 ($25,000 interest + $5,000 tax): that is pretty much the value of a standard lot in East Van.
      What happens if suddenly the property get up-zoned with the Michael proposal:
      the lot can potentially yield $90,000/y,
      construction cost of $1.1M, cost, means an annualized cost of $50,000, that left $40,000 for the lot carrying cost.
      Whether the houses could be cheaper to built, it could means more money to pay for the land.
      Where the misguided and misnamed “Vancouver housing affordability policy” come in play:
      Blanket the city with such new zoning without clearly stated “CAC”: That almost grant you an overnight increase of the lot price anywhere between 10 to 30%, because this zoning will be “internalized” in the land price (yield potential).
      It is exactly what has happened with the laneway policy – which has an additional twist, since it doesn’t increase the pool of properties (laneway can only be rent), it has just increased the barrier level to property ownership, with basically no impact on rent (laneway can’t be built overnight).
      It is also what has happened on Cambie. The city basically up-zoned the whole corridor, with virtually no safeguard (CAC are the object of backroom deal giving no visibility on the “fair land price” to pay), letting the market guess the price…price on Cambie skyrocketted almost overnight…
      So far the “Vision affordability housing policy” has been a bonanza for the landowners.
      However, the Michael proposal (like the one I lay-out with basement), is not going to make cheaper to rent a house (it could not change the housing supply in any meaningfull way), but because it is stratifying the ground oriented property segment, it overall reduce the entry price and allows more entrant in this market segment.

      1. I still don’t see why I would build a basement if, as Michael illustrates, there is a relaxation of the current height and above grade FSR figures to permit 3 storeys above ground. His 3 storey building will be occupied and earning rent while your 2.5 storey building will still be under construction. Over time the financial gap will only widen because his at/above grade units are more desirable than ones half buried in the ground and will thus command higher rents.
        I don’t understand lane way house economics. I’ve heard rumours that some of them cost $200,000. If you can’t get more than $1500/mo rent then your “investment” will be in the red for at least a decade. That makes zero sense to me. Might as well keep your back yard as a back yard. The land is going to appreciate regardless.
        I’d love to hear the all-in costs for some local lane way houses. Maybe what I’ve heard is completely out to lunch.

  3. It’s definitely a good time to further discussion of how Vancouver outside the downtown and inner streetcar neighbourhoods might adapt and contribute to satisfying opportunities for housing need – very positive contribution to analyses and discussions that’ve already occurred. As Mortensen points out, there areas are very capable of accommodating a 10% – probably even more – increase in the City’s population without significantly altering character. Approaches such as that identified by Geller’s West Van project are appropriate as well in Vancouver and suburbs.

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